Friday 27 September 2013

Review of 'If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front'

So, I finally got around to seeing the documentary referenced in an earlier post on this blog, about Daniel McGowan and the Earth Liberation Front.

Much of the footage and interviews with McGowan and his family were shot during his trial, as he prepared for an extended period of time in jail. (He was recently released from the Communication Management Unit in which he was being held in virtual solitary confinement, only to be brought back into custody after writing about his prison experiences in the press.)

The film-maker, Marshall Curry, however, goes much deeper than McGowan's personal experiences, interviewing not just other activists who acted under the banner of the ELF in the late 1990s, but police and law enforcement figures involved in tracking down the (until recently) anonymous perpetrators of the actions, as well as the director of one of the lumber companies targeted by the group.

By taking a broad and fairly impartial approach the film manages to successfully highlight both the human costs of the ELF arsons in terms of the fear instilled in the West Coast lumber industry, as well as the curious mixture of determination, idealism and despair which led McGowan and his comrades to take the actions they did. "When you're screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, what are you supposed to do?" is how McGowan himself puts it, which reminded me of the rationale behind the Weather Underground (a revolutionary left guerrilla group that operated throughout much of the 1970s). In fact, both the ELF and the Weather Underground were also alike in that they went to great effort to avoid loss of life as a result of their acts of property destruction.

McGowan himself is adamant that the actions he and his friends took in the late 1990s should be seen as property destruction and not terrorism, arguing that terrorists (be they white supremacists, Islamists, IRA, ETA etc etc) consciously target people, something the ELF (and the ALF before it) was philosophically opposed to. The film is very good at highlighting the ambiguity of the terrorist/freedom fighter argument, which is by its nature a highly subjective distinction to make, and Curry is very effective in the way he leaves the viewer to make up their own minds.

Were the ELF domestic terrorists, as the FBI, lumber industry and others would argue? Were they environmental freedom fighters as some in the activist circles of Eugene, Oregon believe? Are there simply degrees of terrorism? Where does nonviolent civil disobedience become violent? With the loss of property, or the loss of life?

Watch the film and you will doubtless have more questions and arguments to add to this list....