New on DVD: ‘If a Tree Falls’

“If a Tree Falls,” the latest documentary from Academy Award-nominee Marshall Curry, examines the radical environmental activism of the Earth Liberation Front from the group’s inception to its prosecution.

Within the film’s presentation of several ideological battles – primarily the differences and similarities between terrorism and ELF’s arson fires – Curry finds humanity on all sides.

Activist and former E.L.F. member Daniel McGowan is at the center of the film, while on house arrest at his sister’s New York apartment facing multiple charges of arson and conspiracy. His normalcy is shocking, and his demeanor is kind and humble. He could be your neighbor, or even your friend, and you would never suspect that he was wanted by the FBI.

By following McGown as he prepares for a possible life sentence, Curry puts a face to ELF, the fires they set and the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle. He also gives a voice to the victims of ELF’s destruction – normal people whose livelihood depended on the buildings and products destroyed by the activists.

“If a Tree Falls” is provocative, the way all documentaries should be, presenting questions that can’t be an answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Unlike the clear corruption Curry found in his 2005 documentary “Street Fight,” all of the subjects here, from McGowan and other E.L.F. members to the arresting FBI agents, are conflicted in some way.

More sensational documentarians would have recounted E.L.F.’s history with far less subtlety. But Curry has the mind of a true journalist, and he lets the audience think for themselves. That’s what makes him one of the best.

Of course, questions linger. Is Daniel McGowan a terrorist? Curry leaves that judgment in the hands of his viewers.

Grade: B+

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