SUNDANCE REVIEW: Festival Winner 'If a Tree Falls' a Compelling Doc About Radical Environmentalism

Courtesy of Black Fawn Films
A trenchant examination of radical environmentalism and the implications of domestic terrorism laws.

Marshall Curry's documentary, which won an editing award, centers on activist members of the Earth Liberation Front categorized as "domestic terrorists" by the FBI.

PARK CITY -- With Americans' concerns about joblessness and a sputtering economy far ahead of worries about the environment, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry finds new relevance in these issues by profiling the development of radical environmentalism through the lens of domestic terrorism.

Winner of the Documentary Editing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is slated for broadcast later this year on PBS' POV series and will remain an evergreen title in educational settings as well. Select theatrical dates in targeted markets could also prove fruitful.

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Curry traces the origins of the loosely affiliated Earth Liberation Front (ELF) to Eugene, Ore., in the 1990s. As anti-logging activists focusing on the region's extensive public forests became increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of policy reform in the Pacific Northwest, some turned to "direct action" techniques rooted in the nonviolent tactics of previous social-change movements.

For some activists, even the more extreme forms of protest advocated by groups like Earth First! were not aggressive enough to confront the onslaught of logging. In 1996, Eugene resident Jake Ferguson and several accomplices burned down two vacant U.S. Forest Service ranger stations in ELF's first targeted arson.

Drawn to ELF's no-compromise tactics, Daniel McGowan began assisting with the Eugene group's arson planning and execution. Along with unprecedented access to former ELF members and law enforcement investigators, Curry's in-depth interviews with McGowan help frame the context for examining ELF's philosophy and strategies.

McGowan was a transplant from the New York area, where he grew up in a middle-class family and studied business in college. After relocating to Eugene, he became more deeply involved in environmental issues, motivated by his sense of outrage and search for justice. At the same time, direct-action protests were escalating nationwide as law enforcement response became more violent, sometimes involving intensive use of tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and even rubber bullets to disperse demonstrations and arrest protestors.

McGowan's first ELF assignment involved assisting as a lookout while Ferguson and other ELF members burned down an Oregon timber plant. "I didn't have a problem with what I was doing" at the time, McGowan acknowledges in an interview. ELF adopted a variety of clandestine techniques to avoid exposure, operating as autonomous cells without any central leadership or coordination. Other ELF arson targets included a horse slaughtering plant, an SUV dealership and a $12 million Vail, Colo., ski lodge, which represented ELF's most visible act of "economic sabotage."

As ELF actions escalated, law enforcement agencies stepped up their activity as well, with the FBI categorizing the activists as "domestic terrorists" under Bush-era legislation, and the investigation become the largest domestic terrorism case in the U.S., spearheaded by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall.

After burning down an Oregon tree farm, McGowan discovered that ELF had been misinformed about the target. Another fire set at the University of Washington got out of control, destroying a large amount of property, and McGowan began re-evaluating his involvement with the group, eventually withdrawing from ELF and moving back to New York. But federal agents continued to work the cases he'd been involved with, as well as other fires subsequently set by ELF.

Once they'd compiled charges against Jake Ferguson, investigators convinced him to help incriminate other current and former ELF members. Four years after leaving the group, the FBI arrested McGowan after Ferguson caught him admitting to the Oregon arsons on a surveillance tape. McGowan's sister bailed him out, and he was put on house arrest for seven months as the feds prepared their case for trial, after McGowan admitted his involvement in two ELF arsons, for which he faced life in prison under anti-terrorism statutes.

Interviews with McGowan, who's rather shy and still seems a bit bewildered by his actions and the charges against him, form the backbone of the documentary, supported by location footage, law enforcement video, animated sequences re-creating some of the ELF actions and additional interviews with McGowan's former acquaintances, ELF accomplices and law enforcement representatives.

Curry and co-editor Matthew Hamachek assemble the wide-ranging material into an informative, compelling story line, although details about McGowan's upbringing and early years in the environmental movement slow the narrative down and some of the footage of McGowan puttering around his sister's apartment proves too mundane to hold much interest.

In the film's final scenes, McGowan agrees to plead guilty to federal charges, including domestic terrorism, and accepts a reduced sentence of seven years in federal prison. (Ferguson was never charged with any of his alleged crimes.) Since ELF's actions have never targeted individuals or injured anyone, If a Tree Falls implicitly questions whether intentional property destruction should qualify as domestic terrorism, even as it critically reassess the future of the American environmental movement.