Review: If A Tree Falls [2011] by Marshall Curry

Tree-huggers. Hippies…

Others call them extremists. And George W Bush said they were the number one terrorism threat within America.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front spares us the labels and instead, tells us the story of Daniel McGowan and the ELF – an activist group who carried out arson attacks in the 90s. Whether it was a timber mill, an SUV dealership or a ski lodge – companies associated with deforestation and global warming were considered real threats, and burnt ruthlessly to the ground.

Documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry brings us – with unflinching AAA – into the world of FBI-stalked Daniel McGowan, cleaning and recycling as he’s preparing for court on his last day of house arrest.

But Daniel (we find out later why) isn’t about to run free. He’s about to be tried for various domestic terrorist offences during his campaigning with the ELF in the late 90s. Immediately, we discover that nothing is sacred: we’re invited to see his electronic tag, ex-girlfriends, criminal records… Though he’s now completely alienated from the movement, McGowan’s story is remarkably pieced together from very personal tete-a-tete interviews; archive footage, ELF videotapes and the reactions of his family. Marshall even captures a heart-breaking moment where his dad – an ex-cop and in no way ideologically akin to Daniel – admits, “I don’t know my son anymore.”

But before we reach the crucial moment where he is taken away, a backstory of a tradition ripe with its own laugnage, its own clothing, and tapes and tapes of news footage following a bizarrely, almost isolated chain of protests following the disenchantment of north-west Oregon emerges in the film.

“Why are we so gentle?” asks our protagonist Daniel, pushing forward the argument that the government are not so delicate when when it came to wild horses, which were often rounded up and slaughtered for foodstuffs, despite an unspoken cultural taboo on the matter, in similar tradition to the UK. Regardless – the last slaughterhouse was only closed a recently as 2007.

From state protests, to a fireman taking the pants away from a protestor who had locked themselves to a tree – to talking to the victims of the ELF’s arsons, to their former ringleader Jake Ferguson and activist-group politics: Curry’s story refuses to be biased either way, and offers as full a picture as possible.

“I think the film has a point of view, but a complex point of view,” Curry says of the film. He mentions how the inspiration for the story actually came from his wife: she’d come home one night to tell him that 4 officers has crashed their way into her office and arrested Daniel McGowan.

From there on in – it was a case of “a number of interviews [for the film happening] after the sentence.

“The film took 1 and a half years to edit,” he says, “often shooting as we were doing that research.”

Without giving too much away, such painstaking research is evident in this film. Perhaps it is the audience, too, that become jury at the end of the film…

Q&A with Marshall Curry following EU premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival 2011. Review from Oscar Preview 2012 and The Black Lion Salford/Future Artists/Dogwoof screening, 2012.

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