New on DVD: If a Tree Falls (2011)

Watching If a Tree Falls, Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s excellent documentary about the lumberyard-burning, development-hating Earth Liberation Front, I was reminded of the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”:

“Good and bad, I define these terms, quite clear, no doubt, somehow...”

This film isn’t just a terrifically informative and insightful history of a radical movement that over several years committed acts of domestic terrorism (at least that’s what the government argued) to limit what its members regarded as the systematic rape of the Earth.

It’s also a meditation on youth, idealism, the political process, and the very essence of human nature, especially our impulses for self preservation.

Above all else, this film asks unanswerable questions about right and wrong, good and bad, and leaves its audience both incensed and sad.

The filmmakers tell their story largely through the experiences of Daniel McGowan, a pudgy, baby-faced New Yorker who as the film begins in 2005 is awaiting trial for his part in several ELF-sponsored attacks on businesses in the Pacific Northwest.

McGowan was a city boy who joined a benign environmental group and then began bumping into fellow activists who were willing to take their struggle to a whole new level.

Initially protestors threw themselves in front of logging trucks or climbed into the branches of old growth forests, using their bodies as buffers to prevent the destruction of trees.

But over time that sort of peaceful civil disobedience — frequently met by the police with enthusiastic violence — began to look ineffective. Some movement members came to believe that the government and business were in cahoots to exploit and/or destroy the environment wherever they saw an opportunity for profit.

The U.S. Forest Service isn’t there to protect the woods, one activist points out. It’s a part of the Department of Agriculture and sees forests as a crop to be exploited on behalf of business.

McGowan witnessed all this, as well as the internal divisions among the environmental peaceniks and their more radical brethren, and opted to side with the hard cases. He participated in the arson burning of several businesses.

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If a Tree Falls is most effective in making the viewer feel the frustration and rage of these young activists. Watching it you’re tempted to shout out “Right on!”

Eventually it all fell apart when the Feds were able to turn the group’s most outspoken and action-oriented member. Threatened with prison, he then wore a wire to collect evidence against his colleagues.

Arrested across the country in a simultaneous FBI sweep, most of the accused reneged on their vows of silence and quickly cut deals with prosecutors. McGowan refused to turn on his fellows, and so faced a sentence of life plus 135 years.

That astonishing figure was determined by his being identified as a terrorist ... even though the ELF destroyed only property and never injured or killed anyone.

If a Tree Falls is an extremely smart and thought-provoking effort. And Cullman’s astonishingly beautiful cinematography is reason enough to see it ... this looks more like a feature film than a documentary.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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