What is Terrorism? Why I Want All My Friends to See the New Documentary, “If A Tree Falls”

July 10, 2011 at 5:58 pm (Reviews) (, , , , )

About a week ago I saw a preview of the new film, “If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.” The film will begin playing in San Francisco this Friday, July 15 at Landmark Theaters in SF and Berkeley. I think everyone I know should see this film.

“If A Tree Falls” follows the story of the Earth Liberation Front, activists in the Northwest US who were responsible for property destruction, such as arsons and vandalism, against targets such as ski resorts or timber companies. Many of the people involved are now in jail, including Daniel McGowan. The complete promo description of the film(below, after the jump) does a good job of summarizing it (and the situation).

I like this film a lot for several reasons. First, they filmmakers did a great job of placing the ELF and the specific acts within a historical context – why did some people feel the need to escalate their activism to the point of burning down buildings? How did the actions of police and local governments increase tensions? The filmmakers use interviews with people who were active in the political and environmental scenes, particularly in Eugene, Oregon, to give us examples of what heightened tensions during that time. (One caveat – this section of the documentary includes footage of violence by police against protesters, including that f-ing crazy footage from 1997 Headwaters where police put pepper spray directly into the eyes of peaceful, nonviolent protesters with cotton swabs. I found this triggering, and you might too.)

Second, I really appreciated the emphasis on questioning how environmental activists have been labeled eco-terrorists, and the use of the word terrorism in general – something I also appreciated about Will Potter’s book, Green is the New Red. Since Daniel McGowan lives in New York, the filmmakers chose to illustrate this by juxtaposing the 9/11 attacks – which were intended to kill innocent people – with acts of property destruction where no person was injured. The film portrays the activists not as crazy extremists, but as individuals who felt moved by their beliefs.

Finally, the movie includes a lot of interviews with law enforcement at local and federal levels talking about how they investigated the crimes, how they gathered evidence, and how they built the case against the defendants. Every activist should watch the movie for this fact alone.

The government’s case relied heavily on the use of informants – in one interview, a man from the local police department says outright that they didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute anyone, and goes on to explain how they selected and pursued someone to become an informant, and how they used that informant to gather evidence against the others. This is really important to see and understand.

I want to encourage everyone to go and buy a ticket and see this in a Landmark theater. When films like this are played in mainstream theaters, how much money they make/how many tickets they sell really influences the future choices made by the theater about what films to show – This is a well made documentary about activists, and a good showing will encourage Landmark and other theaters to book good documentaries in the future – and good showings in cities like San Francisco can help a movie get released in additional theaters in smaller towns.

This is important. I want you to go see it and take your friends. Let’s make sure that films like this will continue to be made, and will continue to be shown in theaters where they can be accessible to everyone.

Promo Description of the Film:

On December 7, 2005, federal agents conducted a nationwide sweep of radical environmentalists involved with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)—an organization the FBI has called America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” For years, the ELF—operating in separate anonymous cells without any central leadership—had launched spectacular arsons against dozens of businesses they accused of destroying the environment: timber companies, SUV dealerships, wild horse slaughterhouses, and a $12 million ski lodge at Vail, Colorado.

IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT is the remarkable story of the group’s rise and fall, told through the transformation and radicalization of one of its members, Daniel McGowan. Part coming-of-age tale, part cops-and-robbers thriller, the film interweaves a chronicle of McGowan facing life in prison with a dramatic investigation of the events that led to his involvement with the ELF. Using never-before-seen archival footage and intimate interviews—with cell members and with the prosecutor and detective who were chasing them— IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT explores the tumultuous period from 1995 until early 2001 when environmentalists were clashing with timber companies and law enforcement and asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism and the way we define terrorism. Winner of the Documentary Editing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Marshall Curry (Racing Dreams) and co-directed by Sam Cullman.

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