The true-life outlaw tale of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is a postmodern saga so passionate, yet ironic, it seems predestined to be an opera or a Don DeLillo novel. You can hear the pitch: young, fiery 21st-century hipsters getting pummeled by police during peaceful protests over the fate of forests and ecosystems, and then deciding to go underground and fight fire with fire – ecotage! – burning down corporate edifices and costing the evil powers-that-be millions upon millions. Until, of course, the fresh-faced crusaders’ radicalism, naïveté, guilt – or all three – lead them into the arms of the Feds, where the bonds of progressive righteousness are tested and broken.
Marshall Curry’s new documentary If a Tree Falls takes us through reams of drama and social history, from the last days of ELF’s predecessor Earth First! – scrupulously unviolent “eco-terrorists” – to the heroic forest protest at Oregon’s Warner Creek in 1996, to the police violence at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. ELF decided that peaceful resistance was a fool’s game and that it was time for damage to be inflicted in the other direction.
But ELF was doomed – giddy with anarchist yah-yahs and still too young and stupid to understand the forces they were tangling with. They were destined for failure. Curry’s film, in fact, focuses on one of the Front’s stalwart soldiers, Brooklyn-born hyper-ecologist Daniel McGowan, who when we meet him has already been convicted of multiple counts of arson against two Oregon lumber companies and is waiting under house arrest for his sentencing, which might be as much as life-plus-300 years. (McGowan later signed a plea agreement and is serving seven years in federal prision.) Preoccupied as he is with impending lifetime incarceration, McGowan does not make a particularly eloquent case for ELF’s actions, nor does he present himself as much more than an overgrown kid who got carried away with some extreme pranks. You can’t blame him, under the circumstances, but If a Tree Falls steers toward the McGowan family’s worry and grief, and it’s difficult not to wonder if all the protest anger and corporate scofflawry should be boiled down to this one man’s plight. Should McGowan have done the crazy ecotage crime if he couldn’t think of doing the time?
It’s hard to sacrifice yourself for a tree, of course. Because it spends so much time with McGowan’s family and cohorts, Curry’s film argues about the state’s definition of “terrorism,” and how inappropriate the maximum possible sentence is, and how the ELF was scapegoated politically – as if the Front wasn’t trying to attract public attention with their fires.
Caught up in feelings, Curry avoids the headier issues. The tangle of ethical questions and political razor-wire only begins with the fact that ELF were responsible for more than a thousand incidents but did not cause a single injury. Maybe, Curry is intimidated by real political cost. His previous film, the Oscar-nominated Street Fight, which documented the fascinating 2002 mayoral race in Newark, N.J., also avoids any thorny political issues. It’s a shame, because the questions inherent in ELF’s campaign are questions buried deep in the inequities and injustices we live with every day.
In a corporate-owned political system, where do private and public property rights begin and end? Must violent protest be “effective” in order to be correct and proportionate? If regulatory laws are written for and often by industrial lobbyists, why must the laws that protect their infrastructure be respected?
Your attitude toward ELF may depend on your disposition more than the radicalism of your politics. Do you have the stomach for taking the fight against corporate devastation to an appropriate level? Or is personal/corporate property sacred? Isn’t that a principle sustained by landowners and aristocracy?
Personally, I think ELF were doing the right thing – destroying meaningless repositories of investment capital (including a logging company office and a ski lodge) in what used to be wooded western oases. Letter-writing and sit-ins don’t work in a society in which money buys the right to destroy natural resources and devastate “unproductive” communities, and does so, year after year, on a humongous scale most of us would rather not think about.