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

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 84th Annual Academy Awards…    Marshall Curry’s 2005 “Street Fight” is an absolutely riveting political documentary feature that lost the Oscar to the wildly over-praised “March of the Penguins”(cute arctic birds plus Morgan Freeman narration—you do the math). “Street Fight” focused on the 2002 mayoral campaign where Cory Booker attempted to unseat corrupt multi-term Newark, New Jersey mayor Sharpe James. It was a masterful debut for Mr. Curry—and something he’ll have a whale of a time topping.          His latest Oscar nom is for an equally fascinating subject—radical environmentalism. But its heroes and villains are less clear this time around…and it is that fine line walk that makes this compelling. The primary focus here is on one, Daniel McGowan and his current imprisonment for a series of arson crimes targeting lumber companies and other decided ecosystem offenders. The film blatantly poses the question: are Mr. McGowan and his co-horts domestic terrorists? Or are they just a bunch of overzealous, wacko “kids”? The behind-the-scenes look into the group’s unlawful activities reveals a concerted effort to set these fires when there would be no innocent potential victims around. Their goal was to destroy property—not to kill. Naysayers will claim that there was always the possibility of fatalities during these operations. Especially among the firefighters sent in to battle these blazes. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue against that stance. But this is no one-sided diatribe. Although the filmmakers’ hearts seem to lie with the radical environmentalists, great pains are taken to present the other side of the issue as well. Especially when it is revealed that ELF “accidentally” destroyed laboratories of a horticulture center—not a company performing genetic engineering of trees that they believed it was. It quickly becomes a slippery slope to attempt to pick sides here. Of course, choosing a favorite doesn’t appear to be the point. The tactics used by the authorities against the various enviro freedom fighters throws light on the frequent examples of police brutality. Peaceful protest and civil disobedience are often interrupted by unnecessary violence(look no further than 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protests for that). But also how much of these gatherings and sit-ins are communities expected to take when it clearly disrupts the livelihood of so many(see OWS again)? It’s a conundrum. And the film is mostly deft at portraying the impacted parties from all sides.            Finally, the feature is strongest when following the unraveling of the group when trials and plea bargains take center stage. Who “gives in” and who doesn’t makes for a fascinating watch. How seriously can you take those who fold when the going becomes too rough? And are you instantly a martyr if you hold out the longest and eventually get sent to jail? Mr. Curry and his co-director, Sam Cullman, don’t have the clear good versus evil dichotomy that was presented in 2005’s “Street Fight”. But that blurring of the line often works to its advantage. However, you are also left with the sense of wanting more as well as wondering if the direction of the film shouldn’t have centered as much on Mr. McGowan. This is a solid, if occasionally wayward, work that ultimately scores points for its examination of both points-of-view. Certainly worth a look…but don’t forget to secure a copy of the superior “Street Fight” too!    Grade:   B

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2 comments on “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

  1. Added to the queue.

    And Street Fight was excellent.

  2. “Street Fight” and Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War” are probably my 2 favorite documentaries from the last decade. ML

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