Merrium-Webster defines terrorism as "the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion." In turn, the word terror is described as "violent or destructive acts committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands."
Under those definitions, the Earth Liberation Front, a group of environmental activists responsible for several destructive acts throughout the United States over the last 20 years, are terrorists. They vandalized, committed arson and destroyed millions of dollars worth of property, all with the goal to make corporations, the government and the world aware of the atrocities being committed against nature.
In March 2001, the FBI classified the Earth Liberation Front as the top "domestic terror" threat in the United States.
The catch: they never killed anyone.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, the Oscar-nominated documentary from filmmakers Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, presents the question: what makes a man a terrorist?
The film follows Daniel McGowan, an ELF member who was arrested as part of a major sting operation and is now facing life in prison for committed acts of terror against the United States. An admitted criminal, McGowen reflects on what he did, regretful for his actions and aware that things spiraled out of control. As a native New Yorker, he also bore witness to September 11, where thousands of people died. McGowen doesn't understand how he can be labeled a terrorist just like members of Al Qaeda, sworn enemies of the United States, are called terrorists.
And suddenly, the term terrorist isn't so clear.
This is what makes If a Tree Falls so interesting. You can agree or disagree - the documentary really doesn't take sides - but the film blurs the line. If you burn down an empty house, you're not a terrorist. If you burn down an empty house to make a political statement, does that change things? And when you start organizing multiple acts throughout the country, what does that make you?
On a more basic level, If a Tree Falls offers an intriguing and unparalleled inside look at the Earth Liberation Front. The filmmakers interview the top people involved, gaining surprisingly honest insight into their motivation and ideals. They also discuss the case with the investigators who finally brought them to justice, detailing how they finally found inroads into the group.
Arson. Terrorism. Crime. Justice. For multiple reasons, If a Tree Falls is one of the best documentaries of 2011 and well deserving of its Oscar nomination.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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