DVD Review - If A Tree Falls

Nominated for Best Documentary of 2011 at this year's Academy Awards, this is the story of Daniel McGowan, the thirty-something who was arrested in December 2005 for being a member of the Earth Liberation Front (E.L.F.), an organization that perpetrated a series of crimes, mostly arsons in the late 1990s.

The point is to tell Daniel's story and help people to understand who he is and why he participated in the arsons. In that, it's a very personal story that ostensibly is designed to get you to empathize with Daniel. Directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, it's great because Daniel agreed to let their cameras follow him and eventually interview him after he was sentenced to federal prison.

In documentaries, especially ones that deal with crimes, getting exclusive interviews with the ones facing jail time is what one hopes. Sometimes, that proves impossible, depending on the crime, especially for murder. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a fellow Oscar nominee this year, is the exception that proves the rule, as its filmmakers were able to get exclusive interviews on film of suspects charged with murder. Aside from murder, people charged with terrorism is something for which you also don't see a lot of interviews. You don't get many interviews of men in Guantanamo Bay for example. Yet, Curry and Cullman have done an interview with a terrorist.

The only question is if Daniel McGowan is a terrorist or not. ELF members are considered domestic terrorists or eco-terrorists. The group's defense against Al Qaeda innuendo or allusions is that ELF never did anything that resulted in anyone getting hurt or for that matter dying. ELF destroys property. It doesn't destroy people, their lives anyway.

Regardless, the people involved like McGowan are arsonists. Curry and Cullman assemble the facts of the various incidents connected to McGowan in a manner that's traditional to documentaries of the journalism sensibility. It's fair and balanced, and it has a real thread of objectivity. The DVD commentary does lend to the idea that the filmmakers were sympathetic to McGowan, but one of the federal prosecutors that ultimately sent McGowan to jail expresses that same sympathy.

As any good documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front enlightens about the ELF group and an issue that many people might not know much, the issue of deforestation. This is a good documentary and its Oscar nomination was well-deserved. Originally a PBS production, it's now available on DVD, on NetFlix Watch Instantly, iTunes and on Amazon Instant Video.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated But Recommended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.


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