You’re looking at the title of this and probably thinking, “Another activist documentary.” And if you’re like me, you follow this with a groan. Well, the interesting thing here is that If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is less activist than its title suggests. Oh, it’s certainly sympathetic to ecological causes and to the main subject of its story, Daniel McGowan, but it goes out of its way not to side with the Earth Liberation Front—and for good reason. Instead, what we have here is a combination of a history of the group and a consideration of how the term “terrorist” is applied. As such it’s considerably more thought-provoking than expected.
As with all good documentaries, it has lined itself up with a story. In this case, it’s the story of the aforementioned Daniel McGowan, who was charged with on terrorism for his involvement with the ELF. The film explores the events that gave the radical group its original impetus, its labelling by the FBI as a terrorist organization, and just how McGowan became involved in the whole thing. The question running through the film is whether or not McGowan will be found guilty and whether or not he will be given an “enhanced” sentence as a terrorist if he is. It’s a reasonable enough storyline, but it suffers to some degree by the fact that McGowan isn’t the world’s most compelling character.
That to one side, what keeps the film interesting are those questions it keeps raising about how the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” have come to be thrown about in a catch-all manner as easy demonizing tools. However, the film equally looks at the very real fact that the ELF tactics did destroy property and in so doing inevitably put people out of work. It’s a complex issue and the film doesn’t dodge it—and it’s careful to present both sides of the argument with middle ground coming in some surprising places.
As filmmaking, it’s straightforward documentary stuff—a few stretches of high contrast, reverse “posterized” images that look like animation are its sole attempts at style—but it’s also very worth seeing for the issues it raises. Not rated, but contains some explicit language.