If a Tree Falls is a documentary about the rise and fall of the Earth Liberation Front (E.L.F.) and some it’s key members. The E.L.F. was a radical environmentalist organization that focused on taking more action than simply protesting and holding up placards. The main thing they liked to do was burn down logging factories and other environmentally unfriendly companies.
The film tells the history of the group, but also follows the story of Daniel McGowen, one of the key members who is awaiting trial for their misdeeds. The film begins with Daniel on house arrest and if found guilty, he could be looking at a sentence of over 300 years plus life in prison. The result, is a pitch-perfect documentary that raises more questions than answers.
We know what they did was wrong, but should they be branded as domestic terrorists? The group never injured or killed anyone in the fires, and was always sure that no one was in, or around the buildings when they burned them. This certainly doesn’t excuse what they did, but I always considered a terrorist someone who looks to physically harm a large group of individuals.
E.L.F. members have also been called eco-terrorists, but which group seems like the real villain? The group that burns down the logging company and wild horse slaughtering factory, or the companies themselves? That’s right, they burnt down a factory that was designed to capture and slaughter wild horses. In fact, they slaughtered so many horses that the gallons of blood ran off the factory floor and contaminated the town’s water supply. After the slaughter house was destroyed, the company was never able to rebuild.
The film doesn’t answer any of the raised questions for us. We see as many interviews with law enforcement and logging company owners as we see with E.L.F. member themselves. Although it does, at times, make the authorities out to be the bad guy, we are always aware that what they did was wrong.
That being said, by the conclusion you will find yourself feeling for McGowen. He’s kind and well-spoken, and doesn’t seem to have a malicious bone in his body. Unfortunately he was just a little too passionate about his love for protecting environment and made some very bad decisions. It hardly seems fair that people are sent to jail for violent crimes like rape and assault, and will spend far less time in prison than he will.
In the end, If a Tree Falls is a film about the environment, terrorism, the judicial system, and our right to freedom of assembly. It starts off simple enough with a group starting some fires, and balloons into some broad issues that have many sides and opinions. Whether you support the ideas of the E.L.F. or not, this film will spark plenty of conversation, and that makes for an intriguing and thought provoking documentary.