MOVIE REVIEW: IF A TREE FALLS

This blog is geared almost exclusively to animal rights/veganism/vegetarianism etc. Every once in a while though, there are issues that fall close enough to the realm of veganism that I feel deserve at least some blurb in this cyber-publication; environmentalism is one such subject. A couple weeks ago I saw If a Tree Falls at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and it was worth my entry-fee, and then some. Because the cruelty-free lifestyle  has an element of activism attached to it, I found this movie extremely relevant, so I wrote a review:

The word “terrorism” conjures up images of Al Quaeda boogey men, crashing planes, holy war and an astronomical body count. If a Tree Falls shows a different face to what the government deems terrorism. The perpetrators are Americans whose cause has nothing to do with foreign relations and whose message possesses no religious undertones. It is the tale of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a group of environmental activists who grew tired of the tried and traditional methods of peaceful protest; they believed the best defense against destructive corporations, was to burn them to the ground.

The film revolves around Daniel McGowan, a former member of the ELF who was arrested on December, 2005, along with thirteen others, in connection with a series of arsons in Oregon.  If a Tree Falls shows the present state of McGowan as he wades through his trial, struggling with house arrest, plea-bargains and impending sentence—life plus 335 years—while he does his best to lead a normal life by spending time with his family and getting married.

If a Tree Falls is not a call to arms through radical means, nor is it a condemnation of the ELF’s actions. It is an exploration and exposition of why a middle-class Brooklyn native with a police officer father and a college degree would resort to black bandannas and gasoline in the name of mother nature.  Starting from the beginning of Eugene Oregon’s environmental struggle, we are shown archival footage of quashed rallies and protests that become increasingly hard to watch as young activists are pepper sprayed and beaten by police, while their pleas fall on Uncle Sam’s deaf ears.

Radical action springs from these futile efforts, and the documentary goes great lengths to show the birth and dramatic decline of the ELF cell. First hand accounts and sparse animation dramatically detail midnight missions that result in fiery destruction of an SUV dealership, a tree farm and a wild horse slaughterhouse, amongst other buildings. Following this, the prosecutor and a smug detective explain their method of how they successfully arrest McGowan and his cohorts, by using one of their own against them.

If A Tree Falls is more than a narrative; it is a prompt for important questions.  McGowan is regarded as a terrorist by the US court system, but in the post 9-11 world, the word carries greater weight than before.  McGowan admittedly destroyed private property, but did not take any lives, does this make him a terrorist? Should he be equated with Osama Bin Laden, and should the Earth Liberation Front be likened to Al Quaeda?

The documentary also blurs the line of what is right and what is wrong.  When the people we elect to serve our best interests continually side with those with fatter pockets, do we just sit back and concede to their will?  Is radical action ever justified, when words fail us? As one Oregon resident in the film boldly states when referring to the forests, “It’s not radical to save the last five percent.”

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