1306607516_if_a_tree_falls_wallpaperCan this film be rented through Netflix Instant and/or Apple’s iTunes Store? The film is not available through Netflix Instant, but it is available for rental on the iTunes Store.

What do the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ mean to you? What does someone have to do in order to be labeled a ‘terrorist?’ The killing of a single person, many persons, or does the simple destruction of a building suffice to constitute ‘terrorism?’ Should whether you agree or disagree with a terrorist’s motives influence whether or not that person is a terrorist? In that sense, were the American colonists who rose up against the British crown in the Revolutionary War terrorists? Should that war have been called the Terrorist War instead?

In a post-9/11 world, these questions have taken on heightened importance. For events such as 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombings, Americans unanimously agree that these events undoubtedly qualify as acts of terrorism. Many people were killed, property was destroyed, and the majority of us disagreed with the motives of the people who committed these acts. However, the picture gets muddied when we consider acts that do not fall so neatly in these categories. Acts such as the ones committed by organizations like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an ‘eco-terrorist’ international coalition of radical environmental groups that the FBI has listed as the top “domestic terror” threat in the United States. This is one of the dilemma presented in If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

Directed by Marshall Curry (Street Fight and Racing Dreams) and Sam Cullman (Black Cherokee), If a Tree Falls is a 2011 Academy Award-nominated documentary about a young environmental activist from Queens named Daniel McGowan and his involvement with the ELF. Like many college students (to clarify, like many college students who did not spend their entire time in college drinking and getting stoned), Daniel McGowan gained new insights and experiences that shaped his outlook on life. For Daniel, environmental activism took a deep hold within him and profoundly influenced his views on the world. He soon found himself actively involved with environmental organizations and taking part in all sorts of protests and letter-writing campaigns against big, bad corporations. Daniel then decided to move out west, where especially in Eugene, Oregon, the environmental movement was heavily active and a more radical, aggressive element of the movement was emerging. One of these radical elements was ELF, which had made a name for itself in the Pacific Northwest for its acts of arson against lumber mills and a slaughterhouse where wild horses were rounded up and killed. After meeting the ELF at the 1999 WTO (World Trade Organization) protests in Seattle, Daniel joined the ELF in Eugene and befriended one of its members, Jake Ferguson, a quiet outlaw sort of guy. Over the next couple of years, Daniel and the ELF committed a series of arsons and attracted the attention of the media and law enforcement.

In May 2001, Daniel and the ELF targeted 2 sites at once. Unfortunately, the group discovered that one of the sites was targeted on faulty information and the destruction to the second site caused far more damage than anticipated. With circumstances spiraling out of control, Daniel wanted out so he moved back to New York City, where he met his future wife and he worked for a few nonprofit organizations. However, the government continued its investigation on the ELF and its acts and it soon found its witness in Jake Ferguson. Jake’s cooperation with the government eventually resulted in Daniel’s arrest.

If a Tree Falls begins in the present day with Daniel McGowan living in his sister’s apartment under house arrest as he awaits his trial. When we first meet Daniel, he is getting pressure from the government to enter into a plea agreement and testify against his co-defendants for a reduced sentence. If he doesn’t accept the plea, he faces life in prison. Within the first few minutes of meeting Daniel, you can hardly imagine that this affable, good-humored, totally normal-in-every-way guy is a “terrorist.” He isn’t crazy, quirky, mean, he’s not a loner, he has never physically harmed or killed anyone, and nor does he possess any of the stereotypical traits that you would normally associate with a terrorist. In short, Daniel is not the firebrand, fiery-eyed radical activist that we would all imagine him to be. We witness Daniel’s wedding to his very supportive girlfriend, Jenny Synan, and Daniel’s interactions with his sister, father, and nieces and nephews. The film obviously portrays Daniel as being a good and normal person who although he deserves punishment for his crimes of arson, it is hardly fair to label him as a terrorist. If a Tree Falls paints a picture of Daniel as an idealistic and passionate environmentalist whose best intentions led him to commit crimes in the name of what he believes in.

The film also explores the state of the environmental activist movement as a whole during the 1990’s and how it evolved into splinter radical groups that adopted aggressive methods of getting their message across. For this, the film relies a lot on Tim Lewis, an Earth First activist and filmmaker from Eugene. Lewis recounts how local law enforcement and the Forest Service’s brutal and uncompromising actions (e.g. Water Creek and an incident in Eugene that involved the cutting down of trees to build a parking lot for Symantec) caused an escalation between environmental activists and the government in the Pacific Northwest. This in turn led to the emergence of groups like ELF. Our understanding of the environmental movement during this time period is presented mainly through Lewis’ accounts, along with photographs and video and news footage. You cannot help but be incensed when watching footage of police officers pepper spraying and beating peaceful protestors. I was reminded of the recent incident at U.C. Davis during the height of the Occupy protest movement when a campus police officer pepper sprayed a protestor when the student was already down and restrained. Although its perfectly understandable that no matter how well trained law enforcement officers may be in dealing with riots and protests, human nature will frequently rear its head and replace professionalism with anger and impulse.

This leads me to the second major theme explored in If a Tree Falls and that is the efficacy of peaceful protesting. In this film, we see numerous instances where environmental activists engage in years of letter-writing and peaceful protesting against corporations that destroy the environment. In all of the instances shown here, the efforts by peaceful activists yields zero results. Add to this frustration aggressive methods of policing and the passage of new laws by the government to make it harder to stage protests. When faced with such mounting, well-funded and well-resourced resistance, is it any wonder that activists would feel the need to step up their activities in order to get the attention they desire? As Daniel so perfectly puts it, “When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

As stated before, the film tends to lean in support of environmental activism, which is evidenced through its substantial focus on and discussions with Daniel, Tim Lewis, and other activists, through video and news footage showing protestors subjected to police brutality, and the environmental consequences caused by timber companies in the Pacific Northwest. At the same time, the film is careful to avoid being preachy or judgmental. The film wisely allows the participants to make the arguments supporting environmental activism. Despite sympathetically portraying Daniel McGowan’s plight, If a Tree Falls avoids advocating the ELF’s actions. Reminiscent of a newsmagazine crime story, the film objectively shows how the organization gained influence, what its actions were, and how it was brought down by law enforcement. Rather than condemn the ELF’s actions, it allows the former members of the organization to express their remorse at what they did. At the same time, however, the movie questions whether the ELF’s actions should fairly be labeled as terrorists.

Although the film is not as perfectly even-handed as it would like you to believe, If a Tree Falls does present the opposite perspective as and it does so without vilifying its participants. The primary voices in the film are that of Kirk Engdall, Assistant U.S. Attorney and Greg Harvey, Eugene P.D. detective, who both investigated and eventually brought down Daniel McGowan and his ELF co-defendants. These men did not judge McGowan and the ELF’s actions based on whether or not their motives were morally right. It was not their job to do so. They strictly viewed them as people who broke the letter of the law and for that, they had to be prosecuted. Like the former members of the ELF, If a Tree Falls portrays these people, as well as others such as the owner of a lumber mill, dispassionately and it allows them to make the case for their viewpoint rather than make it for them.

As an attorney and as someone who has a family business (commercial real estate development) that at times conflicts with the interests of environmentalists and preservationists, I understand where the people in this film come from. As an attorney or one whose job is to enforce the law, you don’t have the choice to pick and choose who you are going to prosecute. If the law is broken and a case comes across your desk, you have no choice but to handle it. As a developer, your primary goal is to make an income for your family so you can pay the bills and provide life’s necessities. If all the owner of a lumber mill knows is how to cut down trees, then that is what he will continue to do and he will operate within the parameters of the law. I don’t think anyone can fault him for doing the only thing he knows how to do. Where change is needed is not by forcing people to leave their livelihood, but to change the laws and regulations behind these industries and to find new technologies to preserve the environment. This is where the film shows how not black and white this issue is. There are a lot of gray areas, even in seemingly cut-and-dried issues like environmental activism and preservation.

One of the most insightful parts of If a Tree Falls happens toward the end when the film poses the question of whether the label “eco-terrorism” is truly a form of terrorism. Based on the answers given in this film, its obvious that no clear definition exists and the debate over this issue is far from over. Daniel compares the use of the term “terrorist” to how the term “communist” was used during the McCarthy era of the 1950’s. Daniel’s lawyer remarks that terrorism involves ending someone’s life, which is the antithesis of what Daniel and the ELF were all about. Their agenda was about preserving life. Tim Lewis makes the most interesting comment when he notes that when people destroy property belonging to a corporation or the government, it is considered an act of terrorism. In contrast, when a corporation destroys natural resources, its not considered terrorism and the corporations get away by simply paying a fine. On the other side of the issue, terrorism is defined by law enforcement and lawyers in a much more vague and fluid manner that potentially encompasses actions that already have other labels (e.g. murder, arson, etc.) attached to them. However, the biggest surprise comes at the end of this scene when U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall reflects on the actions of Daniel and his co-horts. Instead of flatly condemning their actions, he acknowledges that time has made him realize that this is not as black and white as he initially thought it was and he has finally understood why these people did what they did. In the end, this is a debate that is far from being resolved, but also one that most people seem to be too afraid to seriously discuss in light of how recent 9/11 still feels for most Americans.

If a Tree Falls is an excellent and thoughtful insider’s view of not just simply who the ELF is, but really who those dirty, crazy-looking hippies are that your family and friends shrug off as being wackos. There is a great interview in the film with a man named Bill Barton. This guy is a former logger and comes from a family that has been in the logging business for many generations. Bill has no problem with cutting down trees, but he has a problem with cutting down every last one of them as our logging industry is currently doing. For this reason, he is an environmentalist and he explains that not all environmental activists are wackos and hippies. Many are people just like him – moms, dads, scientists, businesspeople, and lawyers like me. This film came out at an opportune time because it was a few short months after its release when the Occupy Movement began to mushroom. In one sense, this film also provides an explanation as to why that movement rose and eventually fell. It deals with whether traditional forms of peaceful protest are truly effective.

If you see this film (which I strongly urge you to do) and you would like to obtain more information about Daniel McGowan and other eco prisoners, check out the links below: