If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

A gimlet-eyed glimpse into the roots of terrorism and the politics behind its prosecution.

A gimlet-eyed glimpse into the roots of terrorism and the politics behind its prosecution, “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” lacks the passion of previous Marshall Curry films (“Racing Dreams,” “Street Fight”) — something mirrored in his principal character, but also something that keeps the docu from being as sharp as it might have been, or as up-to-date. Broadcast exposure is assured; some specialty theatrical play seems likely.

Curry’s entree into the world of so-called “eco-terrorism” and its leading, oft-caricatured practitioner — the Earth Liberation Front (dubbed by the Bush administration FBI as “the nation’s No. 1 domestic terrorism threat”) — happened by accident. In December 2005, federal agents invaded Curry’s wife’s place of business and arrested her co-worker, Daniel McGowan, a rather nondescript New Yorker who, four years earlier, had been involved in some of the ELF’s more notorious acts of property destruction. In the intervening years, McGowan had settled down, lost contact with his fellow vandals and, from every indication, also lost his edge about eco-issues. Government prosecutors, however, viewed every successful terrorism prosecution as a notch in their gun belts. So McGowan became the endangered fish in the barrel.

Between sequences of McGowan’s months-long house arrest, Curry provides a concise, temperate but penetrating history of how the ELF came to be: Nonviolent protests against timber interests in Oregon were met by police brutality, some might even say torture (the footage Curry collects has to be seen to be believed). Going through the proper channels became a joke. So a now more radicalized bunch environmentalists began taking extreme measures: The burning of a Forestry Service station was followed by the torching of a horse slaughterhouse, government vehicles, a timber company and a $12 million ski lodge in Vail, Colo. ELF cells began popping up across America. No people were ever injured, targeted or even endangered, but the ELF had poked the bear of both the U.S. government and corporate America.

Curry lays out the strategies of the ELF with precision and clarity, abetted by handsome animation and terrific ancillary players. These include the charismatic Oregon activist Tim Lewis and several of McGowan’s old cohort. The strategic error was using McGowan as the film’s central character; he sucks the energy out of the film whenever he appears. There’s a point to this — it makes the government’s hunger for terrorism convictions all the more transparent. Dramatically, however, it’s as damp as the weather in Oregon.

Tech credits are tops all around.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

  • Production: A Marshall Curry Prods. presentation in association with Independent Television Service (ITVS), the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, Lucky Hat Entertainment, American Documentary (POV) and the BBC. Produced by Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman. Executive producers, Stephen Bannatyne, Marcia Carver, Sally Jo Fifer, Simon Kilmurry, Nick Fraser. Directed by Marshall Curry. Co-director, Sam Cullman. Written, edited by Matthew Hamachek, Curry.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Cullman; music, James Baxter, the National; sound, Curry, Cullman; sound designer, Paul Hsu; re-recording mixer, Chad Birmingham; line producer, Bill Gallagher. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan 22, 2011. Running time: 85 MIN.
  • With: With: Daniel McGowan, Tim Lewis, Jake Ferguson.
  • Music By: