I watch a lot of environmental documentary films, and it’s usually quite clear whose “side” the filmmaker is on—the same one as me, of course. In one sense, this is perfectly understandable: Powerful people and institutions that trash the environment are more likely to use lobbyists, front groups, and PR wizards, not earnest documentaries, to spread their views. Big Coal, Big Oil, and Big Timber take their agenda straight to the halls of power, not to art houses and film fests.
The unfortunate result is that environmental documentary genre can be ripe for groupthink and complacency, and occasionally I find myself refreshed to see a doc that forces viewers to challenge their own preconceptions and opinions. If a Tree Falls, currently playing in theaters, is one such film. It follows the case of Daniel McGowan, a former Earth Liberation Front (ELF) member who is serving a seven-year sentence on federal terrorism charges for his role in two arsons, one at a logging firm and another at a facility that activists falsely believed was growing genetically engineered trees. No one was injured or killed in the arsons, yet the government pursued this “eco-terrorism” case as vigorously as it goes after Islamic militant cells that have openly stated their murderous intentions.
McGowan gets plenty of screen time, and he comes off as an amiable and articulate nonviolent activist caught up in the draconian anti-terrorism laws of post-9/11 America. But filmmaker Marshall Curry also talks to the owner of the burned-down logging company, the law enforcers who nabbed McGowan, and McGowan’s hard-bitten Irish cop father, who shares few of his son’s radical views. Curry also interviews green activists who became government informants against their peers in order to save their own skins. The end product is a well-rounded portrait that humanizes McGowan without excusing his more extreme actions or painting him as a flawless hero. The notable thing is that the film also humanizes his fellow activists, his parents, and his legal foes, acknowledging that conflicting opinions and emotions come with this complicated territory. Not everything is as clear-cut as the wilderness that McGowan is so committed to saving.
The British environmental magazine The Ecologist has an interview with Marshall Curry that explains a bit about how this remarkable and moving film came together. For starters, he basically happened across his subject: Curry’s wife works at the office where McGowan was arrested.
As Curry tells The Ecologist, “I actually didn’t know anything about the ELF beside very cursory things I’d seen on TV. My wife runs a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn and came home from work one day and told me that four federal agents had walked in to her office and arrested one of her employees. It was Daniel McGowan—I knew him a bit, he was the opposite of someone who’d be facing life in prison for domestic terrorism would look or act like. I was interested and decided to jump in.”
Curry’s fair-mindedness ultimately does a great service to his film, to judge from the reactions he’s gotten. He says, “When you work on something in an edit room with just a couple of other people, you never know how it is going to be received. It was really important to us that it reflect the complexities of the case. We’ve been happy to see that the prosecutor, the detective, and the police captain—they’ve all seen it and feel like it’s an important and accurate story. Similarly, Daniel’s family and the spokesman for the ELF say the same thing.”
Watch the trailer for If a Tree Falls here:
Source: The Ecologist