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In presenting the story of Daniel McGowan, the former Earth Liberation Front (ELF) environmental activist who’s been sentenced to life imprisonment for environmental terrorism or, more specifically, for arson committed against northwest US lumber companies and national parks, filmmakers Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman raise questions and stir public debate about the definition of terrorism, especially in the post-9/11 security environment.

Change of Heart and Tactics

McGowan, an idealistic and naive Long Island youth who’d traveled to the northwest to become active in the environmental movement, became increasingly radicalized as he saw that peaceful protests were not effective, and that peaceful demonstrations were met with violence from authorities. Eventually, McGowan and other members of the ELF fire bombed lumber company headquarters and national park property. Although nobody was hurt in the explosions, the blasts caused millions of dollars in property damage.

Curry and Cullman use dramatic archival footage not only of the fires caused by ELF, but also of the shocking misconduct of Eugene, Oregon police when they broke up a peaceful demonstration staged by citizens protesting the cutting down of a landmark tree. The police used clubs, tear gas and pepper spray to disband the demonstrators, including those who had positioned themselves in the branches of the tree that was to be cut down. The police behavior is horrendous, and the footage might well serve as a primer of how authorities should NOT deal with civil disobedience.

Curry and Cullman show that McGowan, although he admits to extreme acts of arson, is a kind of an everyman — someone who wishes to do well and improve society, becomes disenchanted, disenfranchized and turns to the use of distructive tactics instead of peaceful ones to effect change.

One of the most interesting aspects of McGowan’s character is his refusal to testify against other former ELF members, although they’re testifying against him in order to lighten their own punishments. McGowan faces life in jail, and betrayal by former ELF comrads, but he remains true to his personal ideals. This character trait makes him quite sympathetic, and the debate around his situation becomes all the more serious.

More Than McGowan

There is, of course, the question of whether destruction of property — actually, empty buildings were burned down — warrants a life sentence. The prosecution and court obviously think so, but you’re provoked to give serious consideration to this question, and that really makes you grapple with the issue of defining terrorism. It’s a very worthwhile and legitimate challenge. Kudos to Curry and Cullman for expanding this very compelling story about a little known chapter in the environmental movement to raise questions about how social protest should be staged, how terrorism should be defined and how civil disobedience should be handled by authorities.

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is now streaming on OVID.tv. Watch the trailer:

Film Details:

Title: If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Directors: Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
Release Date: June 22, 2011
Running Time: 85 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Locations: Eugene and Seattle, Oregon, New York City and other US locations.
Language: English
Production Country: USA
Distribution Company: Oscilloscope Pictures
Official Website

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