While it may not pack the rollicking drama of his first feature, Street Fight, Marshall Curry's timely If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front likewise chronicles the personal tale behind political headlines—in this case that of Daniel McGowan, an unassuming co-worker of Curry's wife who, one seemingly Kafkaesque day, was arrested as part of a roundup of ELF members. Opening with news clips of the damage wrought by this shadowy organization, which to the mainstream environmental movement is sort of like what PETA is to the animal-rights lobby, Curry's film quickly turns to candid interviews with McGowan—a happy-go-lucky sort who seems about as threatening as the Pillsbury doughboy—while he's under house arrest.
And in addition to probing this accused terrorist, whose conversion began not at a madrassa, but at meetings at the now defunct Wetlands, downtown NYC's music venue for hipster environmentalists, Curry attempts to trace ELF's physical and ideological roots, so to speak, all the way back to the environmental movement's split following the first arson at a ranger station in Oregon. One sympathizer calmly explains that the U.S. Forest Service is in cahoots with the logging industry (much like the cozy relationship between the FDA and Big Pharma), and is not tasked to protect the trees. The activists' homemade videos (including images of the police tactics that initially radicalized many protestors at the WTO in Seattle) are mixed in with straightforward interviews with the D.A., and smartly, with mature talking heads that put a rational face to what's often seen as violent extremism. A man from the Native Forest Council emphasizes that he's not against cutting trees—just against cutting all of them. The fact that 95% of the native forests in the U.S. have been cut down is what's radical, he adds.
And as this frustrated environmentalist takes Curry on a nature tour, he points out that trees that are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years old are being chopped down. Which is very similar in spirit to the issues of slaughterhouses and natural-gas mining—the rape of animals and of land, the "arrogance of it" as McGowan says. The members of ELF simply believe that activism cannot be gentle, that brutality must be answered with the same. And the truth is, in terms of results, a single arson is worth a thousand letters sent to Congress. With an alt-rock soundtrack that highlights the punk-rock, DIY aesthetic and actions that are being applied to youth activism these days, the doc manages to drive home the notion that, however much one might disagree with ELF's tactics, their point of view holds a lot of truth. The idea that property damage—i.e. lost revenue—is the only language corporations speak is pretty spot-on. No real social change happens without force, McGowan reminds, arguing that too many people have a "Pollyanna" outlook on the world.
Yet even as Curry renders the arsonist actions in black-and-white animation, If a Tree Falls remains both complex and nuanced. Set against McGowan and his cohorts' undeniable logic are also interviews with the loggers of Superior Lumber (a company McGowan targeted) who argue that their whole industry depends on trees—so why would they destroy them all? The law is to plant six trees for every one you cut down, a businessman says. While McGowan notes the irony of finally being released from house arrest on September 11th (and is adamant that he shouldn't be lumped in with murderous terrorists since he's only destroyed property), the fact remains that ELF's arsonist methods are quite similar to bomb-making. Not to mention the group has made mistakes based on faulty information—and that some members did indeed want to target people.
By the time the doc switches to the federal investigation, and the government's deal with a heroin-addicted member who helped with a national sting, If a Tree Falls has broadened into an intriguing debate about the very definition of terrorism. For Daniel and his fellow New Yorkers the idea of eco-"terrorists" callously demeans the word. But to those whose businesses have been firebombed, who now live their lives in a state of high alert, dismissing their psychological damage as anything less than terrorism is every bit an equal affront.