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The Green Life: Movie Review Friday: If A Tree Falls

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May 13, 2011

Movie Review Friday: If A Tree Falls

Escape to the movies with one of our Movie Review Friday selections. Each week we review a film or television event with an environmental theme. Seen a good eco-flick lately? Send us a short review and look for it in the next Movie Review Friday.

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011)  

Limited screenings available


On the surface, Marshall Curry’s latest documentary plays like a twisted Earth Day fairy tale: A young man, Daniel McGowan, falls in love with nature and will stop at nothing (not even arson) to protect it. He's a member of the Earth Liberation Front, a controversial group that uses guerrilla warfare to further environmental causes. One of the film's most jarring aspects is the contrast between McGowan’s persona on camera and the fact that the FBI branded him a terrorist, a conviction that netted him seven years in prison.

Raised in a middle-class family in Queens,  McGowan, the son of a police officer, went to business school and was working at a domestic-violence shelter when he was arrested for crimes he'd committed four years earlier. In interviews, he comes off quietly frustrated, with the realization that many of his decisions were morally ambiguous.

If the film works as a character study, McGowan's tough to crack. His sister says that he's a hard-core environmentalist, but that he didn't grow up with strong political convictions. Using an impressive number of interviews and much archival footage, Curry seeks to reconstruct McGowan’s journey from his innocuous upbringing to his involvement with ELF, which arose in response to battles between environmental radicals and unyielding law enforcers. Without partiality, the film asks difficult questions about eco-terrorism's validity.

Audiences won’t leave with clear answers, but that might be the point. Either way, If A Tree Falls deserves praise for doing what many documentaries fail to do: showing all sides of a difficult issue so that viewers can draw their own conclusions.

--Shirley Mak

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