Director Marshall Curry tackles one of the more controversial communities within the environmental movement with If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front and wisely crafts a documentary that bridges the environmental non-fiction genre with a divisive political subject. As a result of his clever storytelling, Curry's doc is perfectly suited for social networking and targeted outreach to attract audiences to arthouse cinemas. More importantly, Curry, who last directed the likable kid racers documentary Racing Dreams, finds a compelling subject in Oregon activist Daniel McGowan, a soft-spoken individual who was tried on terrorism charges for his participation in arson plots sponsored by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Instead of a topic documentary, If a Tree Falls becomes the personal story of a well-intentioned man whose passion for the environment leads to serious consequences. If a Tree Falls, from Marshall Curry Productions, made its debut in the U.S. Documentary Competition section of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival to solid reviews and good word of mouth. A true conversation starter, If a Tree Falls looks to be a strong purchase for Oscilloscope Laboratories, a distributor with the savvy to use social networking and a campaigns targeted towards the environmental community to ensure this doc's success and reach.
Against a backdrop that shows the creation and growth of ELF within the wider environmental movement, Curry places the spotlight on Daniel McGowan and reveals how a calm and intelligent activist chooses to take part in ELF-sponsored arson plots. Through McGowan's own deliberation, Curry reveals the debate among many environmental groups about the limits of peaceful activism, and when breaking the law becomes a necessary evil.
At the beginning of the film, Curry makes the impression that If a Tree Falls is going to take a big picture look at ELF as well as the entire environmental activist community. Think something akin to Sam Green's excellent political doc The Weather Underground. Wisely, carefully, Curry steps aside from the origins story of ELF and makes If a Tree Falls the personal journey of Daniel McGowan and the evolution of a pacifist into someone willing to risk his own safety and the safety of others for the overall public good.
Curry works alongside co-editor Matthew Hamachek and photographer Sam Cullman to tell McGowan's story and his path to ELF. Archival footage and key interviews capture the longstanding environmental movement in Oregon and how individuals turn desperate in their battles with the powerful logging industry. The highlights of the fast-moving documentary revolve around McGowan and his struggle to accept the "terrorist" label attached to him for his actions via ELF. Granted, Curry may not cover every detail to the satisfaction of either side, whether pro-ELF or anti-ELF, but he makes If a Tree Falls one of the more personal and intimate environmental docs in recent memory.
The story of ELF and activists like McGowan continue with new chapters for non-fiction filmmakers like Curry to tackle via new documentary films. Until then, let's hope If a Tree Falls finds its way into arthouse theaters and introduces McGowan's story to a larger audience. It's a powerful tale—one guaranteed to generate heated discussions.
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Directors/Producers: Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman
Running Time: 84 min.
Release Date: June 22 NY