"If a Tree Falls" Film Review: When is Radical Action Justified?

If a Tree Falls/Promo image

These are moral questions that any serious environmentalist has asked himself at one time or another: As the world's natural resources and habitats are consumed around us, how far should we go to stop it? If a corporation won't take no for an answer, and is dead set on deforesting pristine countryside or fracking near your home or detonating the mountains you live on for coal, is anything more than peaceful, legal recourse justified?

That quandary is central to 'If a Tree Falls', an excellent documentary by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman that has reportedly been short-listed for an Academy Award nomination. The film tells the story of the rise of the Earth Liberation Front in the Pacific Northwest, in the late nineties and early aughts. In particular, it focuses on Daniel McGowan, a young New Yorker who gets introduced to radical politics, travels to Oregon, and becomes a leading figure in the now-infamous ELF--and is eventually tried and convicted as a terrorist for his role in two arsons. Here's the trailer:

McGowan's story is never sensationalized, and the filmmakers allow us to see the activist for who he is: a soft-spoken, impassioned environmentalist who harbors a deep concern for the natural world. Perhaps more importantly, we're offered a step-by-step look at how non-peaceful radicalism is bred: The filmmakers have the good sense to back the story up well before the founding of the ELF, when the eventual members were all involved in peaceful protests that were broken up, sometimes brutally, by authorities.

For instance, the activists are shown erecting a peaceful blockade on a road that will be used by loggers to clearcut an Oregon forest. After successfully blocking the operation for a little while, the Parks department comes in and removes the protesters, albeit nonviolently. The forest is subsequently destroyed. Then, some of the same environmentalists are shown attempting to save some trees from being razed to make way for a parking lot, via the age-old method of climbing up and sitting in them. The police disgracefully shove, pepper spray, and arrest the peaceful protesters in a gut-wrenching scene that evokes the Occupy incident at UC Davis. And the trees are cut.

You're getting the picture. People object to corporate or government action, and carry out creative, peaceful protests. But instead of getting a forum, they're not only denied and repudiated, but humiliated by the authorities in the process. And then they fail; all that was for nothing. The trees still fell.

So what do you do? Well, the vast majority of us keep fighting peacefully. But the ten or so folks that formed the ELF, borne out of those frustrating failures, started a campaign of property destruction that captured headlines around the nation. They burned logging operations to the ground, vandalized the Bureau of Land Management, and destroyed part of a ski resort that had reneged on environmental promises. Sometimes, they were brutally successful--they forced at least one logging operation to close its doors. Sometimes, they misfired; they destroyed a farm they believed to be planting GMO crops. It wasn't.

During the entire 15-action run, they never physically harmed a single human being.

The film itself has been praised for taking such an even-keeled tone (See Andy Revkin's Dot Earth post for an interview on the topic with the filmmakers). And indeed, it manages to sympathize with not just McGowan and the other members of the ELF, but with owners of the logging businesses that were hurt by their actions, and with the aggressive investigators that tracked the ELF down as if they were terrorists. (The film also touches on the subject of whether environmental activists should be charged as terrorists, but for more on that conundrum, see my related post, Is Green the New Red?)

In a brand new era of protest politics, and the rise of the Occupy movement capturing the nation's imagination, If a Tree Falls should be required viewing. There are lessons contained herein--both for activists and authorities--about the nature and merit of extreme tactics. To me, the film underlines the great need for more accessible public forums for grievances to be meaningfully aired and considered, and for a de-militarization of police tactics. Both would go a long way towards discouraging violent action and perhaps bringing about more of the kind of genuine change the protesters want to see.

In the end, though, the questions raised outnumber those answered--you'll have to see the film yourself to decide when and if such radical action can ever be justified.

Tags: Activism | Movies

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