Customer Reviews: If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
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VINE VOICEon October 20, 2011
By the middle of the last decade, the FBI determined the Earth Liberation Front to be "(America's) most dangerous terrorism threat." On December 7, 2005, the feds - in a nation-wide raid -- rounded up radical environmentalist associated with the ELF.

Marshall Curry and Sam Culliman's absorbing and disturbing film follows the ELF's rise and fall as told through the experiences of member Daniel McGowan. Part coming-of-age (or is it "coming of rage"?) story and part a crime thriller as we see Daniel radicalized and then arrested with a possibility of life in prison. With ample archival footage - some of it is guaranteed to outrage - and intimate interviews with cell members, prosecutors, family members and even the detectives pursuing them, this film does not flinch from raising the hard questions about our human role in safe-guarding the environment as well as how -- and who -- defines terrorism.
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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.
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on October 4, 2011
Listening to the commentary track of the director et al, I found myself disagreeing completely with their choice to centre the documentary around one person and unfold the story around him. I thought the bigger picture got diminished in his personal story. Whether they were being careful not to offend the authorities or mindful of funding and distribution politics for independent documentaries.....the tone of the documentary appears to be apologetic and defeatist. It appeared to be a documentary about the 'wrong' choices the activists had made and their now regretful feelings. Instead of soliciting a spectrum of radical opinions and looking at the broader social issues and affects of 'destruction' activism, the documentary seemed to wrong-end the telescope and create an impression of a radical minority who had 'gone overboard'. It almost had the feel of a reality-tv soap opera scripted piece. Neutered and washed clean of any affirmation of its politics and focusing on personal emotion, when it could have been a compelling look at a significant social issue.
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on October 4, 2012
Some people have called this film deplorable because it is "apologetic" by attempting to "humanize" the "terrorists." But it isn't that the movie attempts to "humanize" Daniel McGowan et al. When you listen to him, you find that he is simply a human being, period.

It's easy to see a sensationalist news segment and dismiss the E.L.F. members as a bunch of delusional hippy radicals. It's easy to put them in a less-than-human mental category by thinking of them as "terrorists." It's much harder to see them as exactly like you and me. No different. That's why this movie is so uncomfortable, and that's why this movie is so important.

P.S. - If you appreciated this movie, you would almost certainly appreciate another one in the POV series about "domestic terrorists" called Better This World.
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on July 28, 2011
I saw this doc a few weeks ago at IFC. I thought it was a really interesting doc about an activism group that I didn't know very much about, the ELF. The main subject Dan McGowan is the movie's antihero. He smartly describes about how the group radicalized and later his arrest and indictment. Stylistically, the doc is really well put together. I thought the mix of archival material and interviews over a few years weaved together well/ kept my interest. There is also great music, so I recommend checking out the movie. It's crazy that a story like this can slip through the cracks.
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VINE VOICEon July 24, 2013
This really is a well done and beautifully presented documentary even if (in the end) it is difficult to feel sorry for the poor soul at its center. Seven years removed from this film, and with America in the condition it is today, one really gets drawn in to how much the world has changed. "Terrorism" is a buzz word to which we have surrendered so many freedoms that there is no going back. It is easy to see how that label was a motivating force behind bringing these activists to justice. The interview with the lead detective at the end of the film is quite revealing. He speaks of how he no longer sees things as black/white. People still must be held responsible, but what is the public to do when there is no stopping big corporations, the government is in their pockets, and the government itself is so corrupt that it is using anti-terror methods (drones) against its own populance? This film will make you ask many questions even if they are not directly related to the film itself. Worth watching for sure.
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VINE VOICEon June 21, 2012
Just stumbled across this documentary - I was afraid it might just be a mouthpiece for members of ELF to give their side of the story but really it shows how complicated these types of situations are. By the end the central question seems to be whether members of ELF can be classified as "terrorists" for the destructive actions (arson, mostly) that they have taken. What I appreciated was that this film doesn't attempt to answer that question but really lets you see opinions both from the people who performed the acts (and are now being charged) and the people who had the acts performed to their property. Letting the audience look at both sides really helps show how complicated this is and how sometimes people can think they're doing "the right thing" but actually be misguided (at one point they show that ELF members destroyed a location that was not actually doing the types of testing they were led to believe they were doing). Some reviews here have said this doc is supporting ELF, but I would argue that this doc just tells the incredible story of what they did and what the consequences were. Really interesting and captivating film. The special features are good too, especially a short update that gives information on where various people who were interviewed are two years after the film was made.
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on December 13, 2012
I think everyone needs to watch this movie. If you are an activist, you will connect with Daniel on a whole new level. If you have a hard time understanding the attitudes of activists, especially those who take direct action, this may help you understand how we feel about the destruction humans are doing to mother earth and her animal kingdoms.
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on June 5, 2013
This shows the topic from an objective view. Lets you see the criminal aspect and the personal struggle of the individuals involved in the activities. But it also asks the hard questions regarding how we treat this planet we live on and whether someone who commits these acts should be in the same category as someone in Al Queda.
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on November 29, 2011
I found this film to be important, informative and relevant on many levels, most profoundly on the term "eco-terrorist". People in a desperate and vastly misunderstood fight to protect the earth seem farthest removed from the harsh label. People who make decisions for companies who rape the earth without regard for the viable alternate non-destructive resources and the government who protects these companies seem most applicable to wear the eco-terrorist label. How is BP not on trial for eco-terrorism?! How is the plastic and petrol industries not in the hot seat for both eco- and health-terrorism?! Why were the recent Tea Party rallies protected by law enforcement but the more recent and far more rational Occupy movements continue to be received as rioters, receiving flash bombs, pepper spray, tear gas and physical violence at the hands of the same officers who protected the Tea Partiers. Government and money-power seem to hate humanity and the earth.

The ill-directed damage some of these EFL actions imposed on property and businesses is abhorrent. The fact claimed in the movie that not a single person was physically hurt shows a profound respect for life and impressive planning to ensure it.

SPOILER ALERT: It's a twisted legal system who doesn't equally punish the character who was known to be the main agitator toward destruction versus continued futile protest.
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