By Aaron Calvin
On Tuesday night, the Hofstra Film Club provided a screening of the film "If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" as well as a Q&A with the director. If A Tree Falls tells the story of the Earth Liberation Front (E.L.F.), a radical faction of the environmentalist movement, alongside the personal story of Daniel McGowan, an E.L.F. member brought to trial for eco-terrorism.
The film opens with McGowan under house arrest and charged with domestic terrorism. Cameras follow him throughout the house, researching his case, speaking to his lawyers and making compost. At the beginning, the viewer only knows the facts of McGowan's case, but the congenial every man immediately seems an odd fit for the severity of his charges. Soon the film expands to document the E.L.F. as a whole, beginning with the breakdown of non-violent protest in environmental movements around Oregon and culminating in the arson and property damage perpetrated by McGowan and others.
"If A Tree Falls" offers the viewer no inherent bias. Throughout the film, each side involved has their view presented, from the environmentalists and the police to McGowan and the attorneys prosecuting him. The themes of how democracy functions, the effectiveness of protest and the definition of terrorism are explored thoroughly and presented clearly.
Winner of the Documentary Editing Award at the 2011 Sundance Festival, the movie is accessible and well-paced. Even the scenes of McGowan wandering around his apartment are given poignancy through testimonials and voiceover. The scenes of protest and activism were set to instrumental tracks from The National. Each scene seems to function as a domino, each one leading succinctly into the next.
After the screening concluded, the director, Marshall Curry, was available to answer questions. He explained how he came to find the story of Daniel McGowan, learning of it through his wife who heads the agency that McGowan was working for at the time of his arrest. He then went into the legal and technical aspects of filming a documentary of this scope and the ethics of conveying a story with so many points of view.
The story of "If A Tree Falls" functioned as both entertainment and as a trenchant exploration of one of the great conflicts of the twenty-first century.