Sunday, January 08, 2012

Penny Thoughts ’12—If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) ****

NR, 85 min.
Directors: Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman
Writers: Matthew Hamachek, Marshall Curry
Starring: Daniel McGowan

A big question in the final moments of the documentary “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” is, what is terrorism? There are a lot of talking heads in the movie explaining how “most people” see terrorism as an act of violence against another person or group of people. The movie tells the story of Daniel McGowan, who pled guilty to two counts of arson in the Eugene, Oregon area. He set the fires as a member of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an environmental activist organization that committed many acts of “eco-terrorism” against various companies they saw as committing atrocities against nature.

McGowan committed the crimes and openly admits to it and other crimes done under the ELF banner in this incredibly in depth documentary that looks at the ELF and the motivations behind so called eco-terrorism in general. The film is incredibly detailed with the ELF’s history, practices, and ideology. It’s also an incredibly fair documentary that looks at both sides of the issue with equal measure, although its focus is on McGowan and the legal situation his actions got him into. It surprising how many people involved on each side the filmmakers were able to get to agree to appear in the film.

But, back to the question of terrorism. McGowan’s sentence carries with it a “terrorism enhancement” that classifies his arson, in which no people were injured, as an act of terrorism. He’s required to serve out his sentence in a special federal maximum-security prison built after 9/11 for the purpose of holding convicted terrorists. I don’t believe that an act of terrorism is necessarily an act of violence against a person or group of people. The destruction McGowan wrecked on the companies’ properties he set ablaze did terrorize the owners and employees of those companies. However, he did not willfully or even actually physically injure anybody in his acts. So does he deserve the same treatment as those responsible for 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing?

His “terrorism enhancement” smells more like the work of the number pushers who are trying to justify laws against our civil liberties with conviction stats as opposed to actual justice. McGowan is paying the price for his crimes. Why should he also pay the price for other peoples’ ideologies lumped in with his own? His crime was arson, not murder on a mass scale. Even some of the law enforcement agents responsible for his arrest question the validity of such a ruling.

Whatever your conclusion on the question of the punishment against an ideology, “If a Tree Falls” is a fascinating and enlightening documentary. The filmmakers deserve the accolades they’ve received for it. It won the documentary editing award at Sundance 2011, took home the top documentary award at four other film festivals and was just nominated for a WGA award for documentary writing.

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