At the New Zealand International Film Festival: The dilemma of environmental extremism.
Shades of grey are commonly portrayed in documentary filmmaking, but the disquieting If a Tree Falls manages to do so with what the FBI called America’s “top domestic terrorist threat”, the Earth Liberation Front. Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s film doesn’t hide from showing what ELF did during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when a small minority of the environmental movement decided on rather incendiary tactics to effect social change, primarily focusing on arson and vandalism. But the documentary also shows what they were ‘fighting’ against. It reveals the almost inevitable splintering of any counter-cultural movement, whether it be a crackdown from those with power (in this case, the FBI), or self-implosion caused by those wanting a different direction.
If a Tree Falls opens with the arrest of Daniel McGowan through Operation Backfire. McGowan becomes the protagonist of the documentary, and Curry and Cullman get unbelievable access to footage and the people involved. The imagery they gather adds to the complexity: we see the vicious pepper spraying of people who were protesting a tree chopping (the Council decided to chop a tree down before the date it called a public meeting to debate the tree’s future), and we see scenes of immense devastation, of which little else needs to be said.
Curry and Cullman don’t romanticise or champion the ELF’s behaviour, and even-handedly portray the issues involved. The film includes FBI agents, property owners who were affected, the ELF member who became the key to the FBI case, and the ELF arrestees themselves. It charts the history of ELF in the United States, in particular the radicalisation of certain members in Oregon through illegal (or at least dubious) corporate/governmental behaviour, and the effect of ELF’s destructive response. It’s morally complex stuff for those who believe that what is going on in the planet is deeply problematic and little is being done to change human’s or corporate behaviour. The behaviour of ELF could hardly be condoned though, and their internal disillusionment leads to the group eventually splintering.
If a Tree Falls also looks at the bogeyman connotations of “terrorist”—how as one character noted, it’s become the modern day equivalent of “Communist”, a multi-layered word that can be retrospectively deployed against a particular group of oppositional people, effacing whatever legitimacy a person may have in his or her motives. McGowan and the other arrestees potentially face being labelled officially as terrorists, when they argued they were simply attacking private property and not injuring anybody. But the film also shows that those who act in these kinds of ways can act with complete disregard to their supposed morals: unconnected buildings were destroyed, innocent lives were affected, and as the film showed, some of the key arguments behind the environmental movement were unproductively overshadowed (and in many ways ruined) by those who took an extreme stance.