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

This is another documentary from the dogwoof stable that I wish had never been made. Or rather, that the story it tells had never needed to be told. It starts when filmmaker Marshall Curry’s wife told him one of her work colleagues had been arrested for eco terrorism, so began a four year investigation into both Daniel McGowan and the group he had been involved in.

It is surprising and disturbing as Daniel, son of a police officer, is perhaps the most unlikely eco terrorist, but when you see how he discovered the damage being done to the environment, and how ineffective were the traditional routes of protest, it is easy to sympathise with his turn to direct action. This is not about bad people turning violent, it is about the frustrations of idealistic young people being let down by the failings of a so-called democracy.

In Oregon, plans were being discussed to cut down some mature trees for a company car park. But the night before a public meeting was held, the area was fenced off and the community mobilised to try to save the trees until the following day’s meeting. They were just trying to buy a day. Activists climbed trees, but police in cherry pickers cut their trousers, then sprayed their private parts with pepper spray; this is while the protesters were trying to cling to branches some 30 ft off the ground. Why couldn’t they just wait for the meeting? Is a car park so important that protestors should be treated so appallingly?

Daniel became a member of the ELF when he became upset by the clear felling of ancient forest in California, so joined others in acts of vandalism over several years. They burnt an abbatoir that was slaughtering wild horses to the extent that the horse blood was overwhelming the local drainage systems, endangering locals as well as wiping out so many wild animals. Local protests had failed to have any impact. The fire put an end to the business.

The group torched a ski lodge that was going to expand into native forest, a timber company, an SUV franchise, over 100 incidents in all, by several groups that shared nothing more than ideals and methodologies. As their defence lawyer said, this was not terrorism, as no life was ever put at risk, which shows how much care they went to in planning their attacks, so whilst these were undoubtedly crimes against property, to compare them with groups that deliberately cause terror, that murder people is grossly unjust.

But two incidents on one night put an end to Daniel’s involvement, as they were both based on wrong information. A plantation which they thought was growing GM was not, and the research centre they targeted was adjacent to a community agriculture library, so they damaged things they were supposedly supporting. But also, Daniel claimed, they were not getting their message out – the news concentrated solely on the fires, not what they were for.

After the arrest of Daniel and his colleagues, the battle began against having him categorised as a terrorist. His arguments were calm and sensible, and mostly we could be sympathetic to him, but they unfortunately also have similarities to the angry idealistic young people who become suicide bombers, of making statements against injustice, of frustration at a system that doesn’t listen and won’t change.

But the behaviour of the law enforcement was often excessive. Film of young girls at a protest crying not to be hurt as police rub pepper spray into their eyes, telling them it was their own fault makes you wonder if the police have children of their own, and how they can do this. In dealing with unarmed protesters, the appearance of robocops in armour is an expensive solution and ultimately alienates local communities whilst I doubt they make anyone feel safer. They feel like they have been invaded.

This is a difficult film, and the four years spent making it has been well used. And in claiming it was ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ story shows the filmmaker’s awareness of the complexity of the subject, with so many people unwilling to talk to him. The sentencing of Daniel to 7 years in a high security prison in Illinois and labelling him as a terrorist again seems like overkill. The investigating officer later claimed he would offend again, and yet Daniel gave up arson 3 years before he was arrested, is now married, is older and is well aware of how much he has upset his family who had to post several million dollars bail for him. He repeatedly stated that the arson did not achieve its aims, and given how stressful he found the actions, it is clear from the film that he had given up that life.

Ultimately, this is a pretty depressing film, as it reminds us how far we have come from the heady days of the 60s and 70s when marching in the streets seemed to achieve things. Or maybe the changes made by protest were because the issued didn’t matter to powers that be at the time. For all the progress we have made, it seems we have lost much, or maybe we never really had it.

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