Thursday, January 26, 2012

Doc Review: If A Tree Falls (2011)

It’s no secret I’m a doc junkie (I think I’m up to 4 viewings this week alone) and ‘tis awards season, so it’s time to review the candidates for Best Documentary Feature for the 84th Annual Academy Awards. First up “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.” I think this is the first film to take an inside look of the ELF. They interviewed members and victims, showed plans and manifestos, included a lot of never before seen footage and followed one member (Daniel McGowan) as he dealt the repercussions of his actions, awaiting his trial. It’s a bold concept (and a perfect title for the film): if corporate polluters can get away with no jail time for destroying our planet, why are people who try to stop those polluters (mostly with arson) labeled terrorists and threatened with hundreds of years of jail time? We’ve all been there (and no, I will never burn down a ranger station to get attention): believing in something so strongly and feeling like no one is listening. ELF took bold action by targeting (but confirming first) empty structures with spectacular “top-of-the-six-o’clock news” fires. When 2 fires they coordinated for the same night both turned out to be based on incorrect information, McGowan decided to get out of the game. The film follows the investigators as they build a case to bring the perpetrators to justice.

It was an interesting look behind the curtain of the ELF but it felt a little uneven. We only really got McGowan’s story: the epilogue gave little information about “where they are now” only listing McGowan, his ex-girlfriend and the purported ring leader of ELF, nothing about the other 10 involved in the crimes or the victims. (That’s always one of my favorite parts of the documentary: what’s everybody up to after the camera stops rolling) The narrative was a little too non-linear for my tastes and I wish they were able to get a little more emotion and reaction from those on the other side of the issue. I wanted to be sympathetic to the lumber company owner, but he came off as too milquetoast for me to care about him.

I feel great sympathy that they shouldn’t be labeled eco-terrorists (Timothy McVeigh=terrorist, someone who burns down an SUV dealership?=arsonist.) But what we as environmentalists are doing is not enough. Bringing your reusable bags to the grocery store, changing your light bulbs, driving a hybrid. It’s not enough. Civil disobedience is not enough. It’s a very sad state of the world where burning a building to the ground is the only way to get any attention.
Narrative: 7/10
Topic: 9/10
Visual Style: 8/10
Overall: 8

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