If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front


Through the narrative of a young man caught up in an ideological battle, this film explores our society’s definition of what terrorism is. This young man was an idealistic man caught up in becoming more and more radical. He wanted to save nature from being destroyed and he saw from first hand experience that peaceful protests in front of bulldozers and down main street were not enough. With a few of like-minded friends, he formed the Earth Liberation Front and set buildings he felt violated major environmental ideals ablaze. However they had several conditions upon blowing up the buildings. These were that there has to be no person in the building during the time of the explosion and that they had to represent corporate greed and not just some local person who was misguided towards environmental problems. With these conditions, they blew up several buildings and farms that were symbols of environment abuse. However this caught the attention of the government and he along with his friends were now wanted and were pursued with a vengeance.

The film starts after Daniel McGowan is caught and placed under house arrest in his sister’s apartment in New York City. He details his history with activism and being woken up to the circumstances around him when he was a lost young man looking for a cause. There are several anecdotes that detail Daniel’s fanaticism with environmentalism that include recycling labels off of unused can so that no one knows what is in the cans, carrying around a mini compost pile in his backpack and preparing meals that involve only the strictest vegan principles. So right away, I knew that this man was a lot like me only obsessed with something that had more impact on society. Whereas I spend hours upon hours researching, watching, writing and then researching some more movies, he devotes his life as being as low impact on the earth as possible. I can identify with that, but at the same time recognize that it is slightly crazy.

I think that the filmmaker did a good job in establishing sympathy with Daniel. We get to know him as he forced to stay in this apartment paying for his consequences, but not totally discounting what he did. He is a very caring individual who just wants to stop being a burden to his sister and his girlfriend. He has to deal with severe depression and anxiety that I could never imagine dealing with while waiting trial for these acts that he fully believed in. It is hard watching this young man who has such a strong passion for life being reduced to a shell of a man.

The film also sheds light on questionable motives that the FBI sometimes employs in order to get “the number one terrorist threat in America.” The ethics of the FBI has always been questionable since the founding it, but to realize that they are still employing the same tactics that they used on the Black Panthers in the sixties is astonishing and disheartening. The men who are investigating the case take this coldness to the case that I feel is horrible. They recount in dry tones how they systematically manipulated and bribed several members of the ELF in order to turn on the other members and give them longer sentences. One person in particular is turned and forced to wear a wire in order to just get probation. FBI had several things against him including a very severe problem with drugs and a young child that would be taken away from him. The man who was turned and forced to wear a wire when interviewed looked like he was about to commit suicide that is how distraught he seemed.

One last thing that the filmmaker makes a point of exploring is the fact that there are several prisons filled to the brim with “terrorists” in America. One of them is in Illinois not far from Chicago (thank you Blago for that one… not!). These prisons aren’t just on an island far from the country, but right here on the main land and they are filled with people like Daniel where it is questionable whether or not they are terrorists. They are also put through different treatment than regular prisons and forced to be separated for fear of turning regular prisoners to their cause. This is something that the normal American is not aware of.

I think this documentary is very effective in its motives. It takes a very present filmmaker who is liberal leaning, but an upstanding and rational citizen and throws him in this world of radicalism and becomes sympathetic to his cause. I feel like this is how political documentaries should be made. If a person is already a part of the movement, the event or the cause that they are wanting to document, then they can not be as well-rounded as this film strives to be.

P.S. this documentary is on the Oscar short list and it is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.


One thought on “If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

  1. Just saw the film and thought it was very powerful. Daniel’s story is so moving and I hope the film wins so more people will see it. He’s in prison for caring and trying to live his beliefs

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