by Kinnari Bhojani

For every tree that falls, Daniel McGowan—a member of the extremist group the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)—will be there to make sure it never happens again. He may choose to build a fort around the forest, protest in the streets or perhaps organize an arson attack on the logging squad. It for this last activity—something that the government not only deems a crime, but also an act of terrorism—for which McGowan now faces 7 years in prison.

What is most telling about our first glimpse of McGowan is that he is not your typical fanatic. The audience expects him to be energetic and passionate about environmentalism but, instead, he shows a sense of quiet, profound respect for his natural surroundings. He speaks of his arson attacks in a very matter-of-fact way—almost like not he but everyone else is the anomaly. His steadfast pursuit of his own goals to protect our environment leaves one questioning, “What are my fundamental beliefs? To what extent would I go to protect them?”

Moreover, he asks audiences to think about what “terrorism” exactly encompasses. If a person burned down an empty logging warehouse, can he or she necessarily receive the same verdict as another who detonated a bomb inside the same warehouse full of workers, with the intention to kill? We are left to grapple with this moral gray area, to consider and reconsider personal and court definitions of justice.

This struggle between the self and the system brings us closer towards empathizing with McGowan’s experiences. It is when he lost faith in the “system”—the wholly unchangeable and profit-driven environmental policies of the local government—that McGowan began to act upon his personal beliefs. This window into the psychology of the “criminal” leads us to sympathize with McGowan and indirectly expose the pro-McGowan slant of the directing team, Sam Cullman and Marshall Curry.

It is ironic that the impervious “system” that McGowan and the ELF group reproach bears resemblance to the organization of the ELF itself. In the film, we learn about the network that ELF members form throughout the U.S., and the encrypted forms of correspondence that they use. This prevents any sort of communication, let alone collaboration, between the ELF and other environmental groups or the local or national government. It is this disassociation from society that demonstrates why the ELF is not a good model of a bottom-up governing model.

While the film begins in a provocative and intriguing way, it quickly becomes disheartening and completely frustrating—a bitter reminder that this is indeed a documentary of a real-life event in which there is no dénouement, no artistic tying together of loose ends or glimpse of resolution as one might hope to imagine.

Perhaps consider watching If A Tree Falls as a documentary sandwich, between two more lighthearted works from the 2011 Full Frame Film Festival: Forest Hill’s Junk Palace and Lacobucci’s Take Me Away Fast. While they both make references to problematic relationships between the self and society, they do so in a subtler manner.