“It’s awful to be called a terrorist,” says Daniel McGowan, the subject of If A Tree Falls: A Story of The Earth Liberation Front, a documentary about a radical group that fights for environmentalism by burning down compounds or factories they find offensive. In the previous shot he is wearing a t-shirt with a picture of President George W. Bush and the words “International Terrorist.” I wonder if he cares what George thinks.
This is the worst kind of documentary. Yes, I disagree with its politics, which seems to be in line with those who would destroy property for the purpose of change, but more so I disagree with its ethics which are to be completely one-sided and unfair. We have good and bad, we have black and white, the antithema of a good documentary. Even Paradise Lost 3, which is pretty open in its crusade gave opposing views their due, Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, the directors of If A Tree Falls only pay lip service to that idea. Yes, McGowan comes to recognize that burning down facilities might not be the best way to implement social change but the documentary acts as if this realization should forgive him of the deeds he did commit or free him from legal responsibility. The movie seems to be arguing, not that McGowan is innocent, but that arson in the name of the environment should not be criminal. Furthermore, he was entrapped by the sneaky police and therefore should not be prosecuted. That’s an indefensible argument to my mind.
We see what a normal guy McGowan is while he’s on house arrest, awaiting a trial that might lock him up for life. He seems nice enough, we’re happy to see that he’s married and that his wife loves him. All the members of the Earth Liberation Front that we meet seem nice, not radical at all, but they also seem slightly clueless, a little immediate, not fully aware of the consequences of their actions. They discuss the fire that led to their capture, a fire that was a moot gesture as it turned out that the facility they burned down was not, in their mind, actually anti-environment. They seem sort of glassy-eyed and say things in the mode of “Well, yeah, maybe that wasn’t the best idea after all.” Change sometimes takes radicalism and protest can be very effective and the film wins our sympathy when it shows police brutality to peaceful protest, but crowing over the destruction of property melts away that sympathy. True, it’s sad that a young man may spend the rest of his life in jail, especially one with a wife and family, but the movie doesn’t connect the dots that his options are bleak because of his actions, not because of some outside force acting upon him.
If A Tree Falls is also fairly poorly made. At least Food Inc (2008), another ignorant documentary that was exceptionally one sided, was able to draw conclusions, flawed as it was. If A Tree Falls can’t even exhibit evidence to support itself. The shame is that the causes of both films; healthy food and environmental solvency are important issues that need to be discussed with seriousness. If A Tree Falls achieves the same result as the Earth Liberation Front’s actions, a lot of noise that hurts their cause, not helps it. It has a few talking heads that make rational, interesting points, but they get the least amount of screen time. Dreadful.