Ten Square Miles

An Environmental Activism Resource

Category: If A Tree Falls

If A Tree Falls (2011)


If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is an awarding winning documentary that was directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman.  This documentary follows the story of Daniel McGowan, a man who got arrested because he helped commit arson with the extremist environmental group ELF (Earth Liberation Front).  At one point ELF was considered America’s number one terrorist group, as said by the FBI, due to the group’s violent nature and numerous arsons against certain businesses.  The film focuses on Daniel’s reasoning for his actions and his time awaiting his final sentence. Daniel is followed throughout the documentary and he explains why ELF felt the need to take extreme measures. This particular documentary is associated with many production companies such as British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Independent Television Service (ITVS), Lucky Hat Entertainment, Marshall Curry Productions LLC and P.O.V./American Documentary.  If A Tree Falls was first released January 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States.  Since then it has been nominated for ten awards, of which the documentary has won six out of those ten nominations.


Official trailer for If A Tree Falls (2011): https://youtu.be/WRwN-crcQrI




“Company Credits.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.


If A Tree Falls. Dir. Marshall Curry. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2011. Film.


“If a Tree Falls.” If a Tree Falls. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.



If A Tree Falls

If A Tree Falls is a documentary written by Marshall Curry and Matthew Hamachek, and directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman. It was released on June 22nd, 2011 in the USA and won an Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Feature as well as a Documentary Editing Award from Sundance Film Festival. This film was produced by British Broadcasting Corporation. This film tells the story of Daniel McGowan and his involvement with the ELF, or Earth Liberation Front. In December 2005, Daniel McGowan was arrested, then placed on house arrest as he awaited his trial. This film shows the rise and fall of the ELF through archival footage and interviews with various ELF members, family members, government officials and property owners. The ELF was an environmental activism group that set fire and destroyed many different properties such as a lumber company and facilities at the University of Washington. While no one was killed or injured during these actions, millions of dollars of property were destroyed. The members of the ELF were extremely good at what they did, and the group was not caught and served until years after their crimes. A theme of the film is how do people define terrorism, and how far is too far when it comes to activism and saving the environment. The film ends with McGowan agreed to be cooperative with the FBI, lessening his sentence from a lifetime in jail to 7 years. I believe this film is a participatory documentary because of its use of archival footage and its more relaxed interviews.
The thesis of this film is the question of terrorism and how does one define it. The film was very intriguing as it was told like a crime story versus a traditional documentary. I think this worked for the film because of the large scale crimes it was discussing, and the fact that the filming took place will McGowan was awaiting his sentence. One of the films biggest strengths is its use of archival footage. This gave the film a very real feeling. Also, interviews with members of the ELF recounting events were interesting, and it was probably hard to track down members who would talk to a camera about their crimes. Another strength of the film was getting perspectives from both sides. This film could have been biased if it had just gotten interviews from property owners, or government officials, or ELF members, but it included all three which gave the film an unbiased feel. A weakness of the film was including the black, drawn reenactments. I think it was just too much, and took away from the authentic feel of the film.
I thought this film was extremely interesting as it was as much about morals, and definitions of terrorism and environmentalism as it was about the specific ELF crimes. The debate on how far is too far when dealing with something you are passionate is an interesting one. The ELF members truly believed that they were saving the environment, and in some ways, they were. However, they caused a large amount of damage and destruction to innocent people, which is not okay, and at times made mistakes as to where they were setting fires. While peaceful protests and letters take longer to elicit change, I still believe this is the correct way to go. I think the ELF got out of control and caused more harm than good.

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