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Left Feeling Hopeless, Maybe That's What They Intended
on November 29, 2013
Reflecting on this film, I feel ambivalent, which is perhaps what the writers and producers want you to feel. Perhaps watching this one is not as enjoyable as other similar themed movies because you can't embrace the protagonists without a sense of moral conflict, or without feeling that their good intentions led them down a wrong path. I do believe this film is worth watching, for a few reasons. First, it is brought home to you again how ruthless our government is in attacking environmentalists. There is a scene in which the protesters have climbed trees to prevent them from being cut down, and they are attacked with pepper spray by the authorities, who deliberately rip their clothes to pepper spray their genitals. So, you are enraged seeing that. As a result of the feelings of anger that the film engenders watching the ceaseless and soulless rape of our environment and brutal treatment of those who want to defend it, and the appropriation of our government and its agents by corporate profits, as you begin the film, your sympathies tend to lie with the environmentalist protesters -- you too, are outraged. And seeing the actions of government agents, you too feel hopeless. It is in that emotional space of rage and hopelessness that you understand how this group of people felt when they began to make the changes that would lead them from protesting to arson. Led by the most angry of the bunch, they begin to do more than protest. And, I could not help but cheer when one of their acts of arson successfully shut down an American horse slaughter plant. They were always careful that no humans or animals were on the premises when they committed these arsons, with a goal of limiting it to property damage. However, led by this one individual, their acts predictably lead to destruction of property belonging to individuals who are not as evil as they mistakenly believed, and as the film profiles that business and the men who ran it, who see it all destroyed by arson, you realize -- as does the main protagonist, as perhaps the writers intend -- that going down that path seems to inevitably lead to becoming, in some way, the evil you rail against. A different flavor perhaps, but you can no longer claim the high road. I'm sure it's intentional that the film engenders in the viewer the sense of "not knowing how to feel" about what you are seeing, since that is the interior monologue of the activist who is being profiled. He begins to question the actions he's involved in. ** SPOILER ALERT ** As karma would have it, the ring leader -- the one who spear-headed the move from protesting to arson -- the lead agitator himself, turns state's evidence and gives up the identities and locations of his former fellow activists, years after the last arson when they've all gone on with their lives. Which underscores the emptiness of it all -- the lead agitator himself was likely acting more out of emotional disturbance than any sense of true conviction, and he managed to take people with him. None of these facts are reasons to feel "meh" about the film, but it does feel a bit overlong and not as tight as it could be. That's another reason my rating is not higher, and I find that to be true of a lot of environmentalist documentaries -- tight editing and a very clear idea of your emotional arc is really the key. But here the reason is also ambivalence, leaving the film not knowing quite what the message is, not knowing quite how you feel about the people in it. If leaving the audience with this feeling was intentional (and I suspect it was) then the creators succeeded. But I guess I was left with the same hopeless feeling that the activists had when they took their wrong turn -- a sense that it's all useless, that nothing can be done, and that the only effective actions are themselves adding wrong to wrong, becoming a different version of the very thing you want to stop. You kind of just want to turn it all off and lead a life that has nothing to do with environmentalism because you see that you cannot possible impact the path we are on in any positive way. Seems almost like the protagonist feels that way too by the end -- "Man, that wasn't worth it, next time I have a chance I will just focus on domestic life." It's a rather unsatisfying feeling to be left with, one that offers no path forward for a person who like the young idealists, is deeply disturbed by what we see happening to the natural world in the name of corporate profit.