If A Tree Falls
Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
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.
Curry spent many months gaining the trust of McGowan and his family, eventually obtaining access to follow Daniel pacing around his sister’s roomy apartment, under house arrest while awaiting trial. It is this recurring thread that Curry and co-director Cullman intersperse throughout the more compelling chronicle of the ELF. The filmmakers take McGowan from his working-class upbringing in Rockaway, New Jersey through college and on to a low paying gig in a Manhattan PR firm. It was one night, while visiting a downtown rock club whose profits supported a backroom environmental centre, that McGowan underwent a spiritual conversion which eventually took him far from New York. Curry and co-editor Matthew Hamachek cut to a brief but effective montage that inclines If A Tree Falls towards fully understanding Daniel’s rationale. A dissonant bowed piano scores the disturbing images that first galvanized McGowan – hundred mile long oil slicks, factories belching smoke and chemical sludge, harpoons sinking into whale flesh and, most of all, old growth trees dating back hundreds of years being cut to the ground. At this point, If A Tree Falls takes a hard left, moving back in time to reveal the growing radicalization of the Pacific Northwest savethe-earth movement. Tim Lewis, a droll, lanky activist filmmaker (Pickaxe) provides much footage and a clear-eyed view of the escalating tensions between police and protesters that led to Daniel McGowan’s transition from carrying signs to sabotage.
The doc’s mid-section presents a startling collection of key moments from a half-decade of angry confrontation beginning with a little known 1997 incident. While awaiting a twenty-four hour city council reprieve Eugene, Oregon environmentalists attempted to save forty trees by clinging to the highest branches, only to be violently removed. When cameras rolled on policeman firing twelve cans of pepper spray on the last demonstrator, some of the not-so-wide-eyed idealists splintered off into the ELF. Under the revolutionary strains of Rage Against the Machine, Curry and Cullman utilize stirring examples from dozens of grassroots docs and TV news from this episode to the free-for-all street battles at the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle.
It would be difficult to imagine even the most objective viewer not comprehending the actions of the ELF after a searing group of grainy video shots captured by law enforcement in the middle of this chaotic period. A facial close-up of a young male demonstrator chained to a muddy bulldozer, eyes tightly closed, fills the screen. The hand of a policeman then comes into frame and squirts a line of white foamy pepper spray methodically across his face. The scene is repeated several times as another policeman cradles a protester’s face then dabs her eyes with a burning chemical substance. The last shot in this horrific sequence finds two women chained to a staircase, pleading with officers not to shoot toxin in their faces. “I’m trying to protect the trees,” one of the activists cries right before the spray and the screams commence.
Daniel McGowan’s commitment to the ELF began to cool in the middle of 2001 even after his role shifted from lookout to full-fledged arsonist. A minutely planned firebombing of an Oregon tree farm turned out to be based on mistaken information. McGowan reveals that some elements in the radical group sought to move from property destruction to targeting captains of industry. Believing now that change could only come though more peaceful means, McGowan settled back in New York, firstly working for the Rainforest Foundation, then the women’s organization where he was finally arrested. The last third of If A Tree Falls moves into a somewhat reductive, talking-head dialectic on the definition of terrorism. Curry and Cullman’s closing strength comes from setting these broader questions against the very personal tragedy of Daniel McGowan. After prosecution by the Bush administration, he spends his remaining bittersweet days of freedom with family while facing the possibility of doing time in a restrictive ‘communication management unit’.
As the final words of this piece are typed, seven hundred protesters are being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge outraged by Wall Street excess, energized in part by an online video of pepper spray abuse by police on non-violent demonstrators. On the opposite coast, activists have now set their sights on a lengthy occupation of Los Angeles City Hall in a district with a restless homeless population numbering in the thousands. One year after the biggest oil spill in history which yielded not one conviction for environmental destruction but pay raises for BP executives, If A Tree Falls could be the harbinger of an American spring.