In this year of the Arab Spring and the rise of protests in the US, the stylistically straightforward If A Tree Falls, ultimately propels the film into a call for action and change.
It was one week before the American public television premiere of Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front that a brief item appeared on the website Indiewire, an info source from the world of non-Hollywood filmmaking: Kelly Reichardt (the writer and director behind the critically acclaimed Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) has begun pre-production on a fiction film partially inspired by Curry and Cullman’s new documentary. The actor Peter Saarsgard (Boys Don’t Cry) has immediately signed up to play an environmentalist turned eco-terrorist who decides to blow up a dam after a brutal police attack in Oregon.
“I saw a documentary called If A Tree Falls in which a group of environmentalists in Portland are trying to save centuries old trees, and the police act with such brutality that these youths decide to do more than protect a tree,” says Sarsgaard. “I never want to do this, but I can understand how someone can want to do that. We have a gun pointed to our planet.” The trailer for If A Tree Falls, the feature-length chronicle of the radical Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a group labelled by the FBI as America’s ‘number one domestic terror threat’, is equally incendiary. The sound of a ticking time bomb and the urgent voices of newscasters give way to quick flash cut images of ranger stations and ski lodges ablaze, mug shots of long-haired radicals, lines of exploding SUVs, masked anarchists kicking in windows, fists raised, set against marching, charging jack-booted cops. It might not seem typical fare for PBS, the network now setting all its publicity weight behind Ken Burns’ latest mini-series Prohibition.
«carried out dozens of fire bombings against lumber companies, genetic labs and slaughterhouses»
Since the film had its Sundance premiere earlier this year, director Marshall Curry has gone out of his way to point out that this account of the underground collective is an attempt to give equal time to what motivated the ELF along with the arson victims and the law enforcement officers who doggedly pursued them. Yet in this year of the Arab Spring and the rise of protests in the US, the stylistically straightforward If A Tree Falls’ power mix of violent confrontations between police and activists, ultimately propels the film into a call for action and change. Marshall Curry was wrapping what would be his Oscar nominated political doc Street Fight in late 2005, when his wife returned home to their Brooklyn apartment from the domestic violence organization she managed. Four federal agents had barged in that morning and arrested one of her employees, the quiet and pudgy Daniel McGowan. McGowan had been a member of an underground ELF cell that had carried out dozens of fire bombings against lumber companies, genetic labs and slaughterhouses: basically any business or corporation that had fallen into the ELF‘s ‘earth raper’ category.
Unlike his fictional counterparts, McGowan had been careful to make sure no one had been hurt or killed in the fires. Nevertheless the destruction ended up costing millions of dollars in property damage. After the September 11th attacks, the Bush administration pursued the ELF with zeal, pressing charges that could have sent the thirty-one year old McGowan to prison for the remainder of his life.
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