Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front made the rounds on the festival circuit commencing with 11’s Sundance, sparking up press chatter, and receiving an Editing Award at Park City along the way. Their film centers around the life of Daniel McGowan, an ex-member of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), who after being involved in two multi-million dollar arsons against Oregon timber companies, and successfully evading authorities for four years, now faces a potential life in prison sentence. A man who has never physically hurt another person in his life may be branded in court as a terrorist, placing McGowan in the ranks with Timothy McVeigh and Osama Bin Ladin. Curry and Cullman have arranged a telling cast to question who the real terrorists in this situation are, and to find out in crystal clear detail how a fairly normal guy like McGowan could get sucked into the center of this extremist movement.
McGowan grew up as a normal New York City kid in Queens, but as he came of age, he became involved in a variety of protests and movements, including counter military recruitment efforts, and supporting political prisoners. In 1998, he moved out west to become more involved with efforts to stop old-growth foresting, but he never dreamed he would end up joining the ELF, say nothing of helping incinerate multiple corporate timber company offices. His story unfolds as we follow his present life through negotiations with lawyers, and court appearances.
Intermixed with this house arrest court drama, the history of the ELF and McGowan’s involvment is told through archived news footage, and new interviews with McGowan himself, his family, other activists that he had worked with, Jacob Ferguson, the ELF member who took a deal with the FBI which lead to the arrest of 15 other ELF members including McGowan, Suzanne Savoie, another ELF member who was arrested following Ferguson’s confession, business owners that were financially and emotionally hurt by the ELF’s actions, and even two FBI agents that worked on the ELF case. The film stays dead center, portraying McGowan and the ELF from a very objective point of view. Their actions sparked many infernos that caused millions in damage with the intention of sending a message, and it was all to save the environment at a time when words were being lost on deaf ears. The companies they were fighting against are wreaking havoc on the environment, yet the members of the ELF are being called eco-terrorists, despite the obvious irony. These facts don’t make their actions justified, but Curry and Cullman want you to understand these people’s actions, and the strange environment in which we live today.
The film is edited together well, telling two different stories in parallel, though this duel story line does cause a few hiccups in pacing as the transition is made back and forth. The candor of the convicted subjects in the doc is eye opening. It’s clear they regret what they did, and look back at the events with a much more astute perspective, and not just because they got caught. The doc’s weakest link is the stiff sounding unnamed narrator who is doesn’t come off as comfortable, or confident in his role.
Like any historically based docu, the footage used tends to be from a variety sources with varying degrees of quality, and thus, the image presented is a mixed bag to say the least. Much of the most current footage looks great, with very clear detail, while much of the archival material is distorted and weak. This is not the fault of the transfer though. Like the image, the soundtrack comes from many different places, some of it sounds good, some not so much. As usual, Oscilloscope’s release comes in 100% recycled cardboard packaging that folds open and displays a variety of important shots from the film. They even went so far as to print images on the inner part of the dust jacket. Very classy.
Commentary with Director/Editor Marshall Curry, Co-director/Cinematographer Sam Culliman, and Editor Matthew Hamachek
This track is quite a worthy listen. The guys obviously lived with the film for a long period of time, contemplating ever minute decision along the way. They discuss how the film developed, how they decided to cut the film, how they wanted to visually represent different situations, and a wide variety of other topics.
Here we have a small selections of scenes that didn’t make the final cut. These include a scene where McGowan’s sister attends a support rally for him, one where he and his wife are getting wedding photos taken, one in which his sister talks about how much money it has cost her to help Daniel with legal fees, and a pair of holiday scenes, from Halloween and Christmas.
There are three extended interviews included on the disc which basically curious story tangents that didn’t really directly relate to McGowan’s story, but were interesting none the less. The first of which is with Kirk Engdall, the assistant U.S. Attorney that worked on the case. Second, we have one with Leslie James Pickering, a former ELF Spokesman, and lastly there is one with Jonathan Paul, a former ELF Member.
You Cannot Control What Is Wild
Since the film was completed some time ago, the filmmakers smartly included this short featurette as an update on many of the characters within the ELF story, as well as McGowan himself.
Post screening Q & A in Ashland, Oregon with Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
The directors answer questions and reflect on what they aimed to accomplish with the film in this short extra.
If A Tree Falls is an eye opening, and disheartening history lesson about the Earth Liberation Front, and the corporate forces it rallies against. While maintaining a keen objective eye, Curry and Cullman have put together an inquisitive documentary that brings into focus the ideals of one’s morality, and a nation that seems to be ready to bury anyone who aims to question the safety of our environment. Oscilloscope’s DVD release carries on their high standards in both film and overall package quality.