Saturday, July 9, 2011

Chicago Green Film Review: “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”

Last evening, eco-Andersonville featured a premiere one-night showing of “If a Tree Falls” at Chicago Filmmakers as part of Chicago’s Andersonville Green Week. I was able to attend the screening. “If a Tree Falls” is the story of the radical environmental activist group, Earth Liberation Front (ELF) who are often viewed as an “eco-terrorists.” The film has won several awards: Sundance Film Festival -Documentary Editing Award, Dallas Film Festival - Environmental Visions Award, Nashville Film Festival -Best Documentary and Santa Cruz Film Festival - EarthVision Environmental Jury Prize.

The original philosophy behind ELF was created in 1977 by John Hanna and was called Environmental Life Force before Earth First! (1979) and the Earth Liberation Front. The Earth Liberation Front is said to have actually started in 1992 coming from the concepts of the original ELF. This documentary features an in-depth look into the 1992 Earth Liberation Front with one of its former members, Daniel McGowan.


Throughout the film, Daniel McGowan gives us his personal story of his involvement with ELF as he experiences house arrest while awaiting his trial in NYC and the possibility of life in prison. Coming from a typical upbringing in Rockaway, NY, with his father being a NY cop, Daniel’s childhood is doesn’t paint a picture of someone who you would think to become a radical environmental activist. He majored in business in college because he thought that was the smart thing to do. One day someone approached him on the street about environmental issues and, being very passionate about these issues, he attended a meeting at the “Wetlands,” an environmental resource center. There he saw some films on the environment that deeply affected and changed him into taking more direct action. In 1998, he moved to the Northwest which was a very active center in environmental activism.

With protest after protest, Daniel and other young environmental activists grew tired of their voices not being heard took a more destructive path to direct action. The non-violent protest and street demonstrations they was partaking in were not accomplishing anything and even being met with resistance and violence by area police. So, even though he had his reservations, Daniel starting taking a more destructive action in the form of arson to communicate a message he felt very strongly. Daniel says, “When you're screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

Daniel took part in only two arson events in 2001, out of the many actually done by ELF. One was at Superior Lumber Corporation, an old growth logging company in Oregon, and Jefferson Poplar Farms, which was suspected to be performing genetic engineering on trees, which turned out not to be the case. After participating in these two actions, he decided to leave the group in 2001 as he was uncomfortable with the direction being taken and felt remorse about the arsons. He moved back to NYC. Four years after the arsons, he was called out by Jake Ferguson and other ELF members who cooperated with the FBI in Operation Backfire. He pleaded guilty for in November 2006 for the two arsons he participated in. After being on house arrest for 8 months, he was sentence to 7 years, although was originally set to a life sentence. He is now considered a “terrorist.” Jake Ferguson who participated in these arsons too received no time at all.

Daniel looks back on the arsons in this interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and states, “I have regrets that I, you know, employed arson as a tactic. I don’t think morally I’m wrong about what I did, but I do think, strategically and tactically it is unwise decision.”


The term “eco-terrorism” is a “buzz word” that is said to have been created by Ron Arnold, who is “anti-environment” and an adversary of the environmental movement. According to Wikipedia, its definition is as follows: “Eco-terrorism usually refers to acts of violence or sabotage committed in support of ecological, environmental, or animal rights causes against persons or their property.”

The film brings up several thought provoking questions about the term after hearing Daniel’s story and the reasoning’s behind his actions and, through several interviewees in the film, one gets to thinking about the definition of terrorism, especially in the light of 9/11 terrorists attacks which the film touches on. How can an activist like Daniel be labeled a terrorist in the vein of the same people who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks or the Oklahoma City Bombings? ELF members in their direct actions always took extreme precautions that no person or animal was in the building or areas where they performed their arson but yet they are labeled terrorists and imprisoned with the same terrorists responsible for the death of many Americans? Who would be considered to be a greater threat to the nation?

One interview with a worker from the Native Forest Council states that he “is not against cutting down trees but the fact that 95% of the native forests in the U.S. have been cut down. That is radical. So, why is saving the remaining 5 per cent of the US's native standing trees radical when the actions of the logging companies, which have cut down 95 per cent of the nation's native standing forests, are not seen as radical?"

So, how is what the logging corporations are doing any different than what the radical protesting groups are doing? Isn’t cutting down 95% of the native forests with trees aged 500 years old or even older, radical also? Can ravaging the old growth forests and destroying the homes of the creatures that live in these forests also be considered “eco-terrorism”? Who are really the “terrorists” or the “radicals” here? – the corporations that destroy the forests for profit or a group of passionate people who try to save them? These are the questions that the film very effectively brings to the viewers mind.


Another interviewee also brings up interesting point, an Oregon Police Caption states, “If you disagree with their motives, they are a terrorist. If you agree with their motives, they are a hero.” This is definitely something to take into consideration when judging the actions of others. How you may view depends on where your point of view starts in the first place.

“If a Tree Falls” does just that- it presents another side to something to which, on the surface, seems like it will be so simple to take a side, but when you dig deep into it like director Marshall Curry did, you find something surprisingly intricate. As he states, in this interview with, “But as we started digging, it just became more and more interesting. Each of the characters surprised me. There are some topics for documentaries that on the surface seem really great. Then you start digging and things are what you expect. In this case, it was the opposite..... This movie has a point of view. It’s complex.”

Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we can't eat money.” ~ Native American Indian Cree proverb

No comments:

Post a Comment