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Movie Review

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Evenhanded look at environmental trials, tribulations

“If a Tree Falls’’ follows an Earth Liberation Front member accused of arson and eco-terrorism. “If a Tree Falls’’ follows an Earth Liberation Front member accused of arson and eco-terrorism. (Roy Milburn/Oscilloscope Laboratories)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 29, 2011

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Every documentary filmmaker faces the same dilemma: finding a subject. A big-budget dramatic feature may cost more than nine figures and require a filmmaker to sell his soul - but at least he can make up stuff. Documentarians can’t do that. They have to find subjects that will sustain their interest for months or even years of filming and editing - and then sustain the interest of filmgoers over the course of 90 minutes or so. That’s a pretty tall order.

So imagine how Marshall Curry, the codirector of “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Movement,’’ must have felt when his wife came home from work and told him that four FBI agents had shown up and arrested one of her employees, Daniel McGowan. Further imagine how he must have felt when he learned the arrest was for eco-terrorism, a subject not only rich in political significance and moral ambiguity but rich in strictly visual terms, too. The man is a filmmaker, after all.

There is much to recommend “If a Tree Falls.’’ Curry and his codirector, Sam Cullman, offer an impressively thoughtful look at the Earth Liberation Front and its activities. They talk to ELF members and their opponents - both law enforcement officials and businessmen, the latter of whom often turn out to be much more ecologically enlightened than one might have thought. Curry and Cullman have dug up a lot of old news footage showing protests, riots, and the like. They even offer computer-generated animation of some of the ELF actions that figure in the movie. Those reenactments are a mistake (they look like outtakes from a pitch video for the original “Tron’’), but they indicate how much effort the filmmakers have put into serving this material as fully as they can.

Sometimes, though, gift horses should be looked in the mouth. The problem is that the heart of the movie is McGowan. He’s just not a very compelling figure. He’s a bit doughy and inert. You’d be inert, too, if you faced spending up to life in prison. (The spine of the film is footage shot of McGowan during the many months as he awaits his trial and debates whether to accept a plea bargain.) But subject matter is, to a very large degree, destiny in documentary. Just as the wackadoo star power of Joyce McKinney transforms Errol Morris’s “Tabloid,’’ so does McGowan’s inertness hamper “If a Tree Falls.’’

Born in 1974, McGowan is the son of a New York City cop who ended up in Oregon after college and saw the environmental light. This led to his involvement in ELF and participation in several acts of arson. McGowan and his partners always made sure that no people were in the buildings they torched, but they did cause millions of dollars worth of damage.

“How are you going to call someone who sets fire to an empty building a terrorist?,’’ his sister asks, bringing up 9/11. “It’s just inappropriate in every way and it’s an insult.’’ “Every way’’? “An insult’’? It’s possible to love the planet and not set off gasoline bombs. “I think people have a very Pollyanna viewpoint of social change,’’ Dan McGowan says. He may be right, and our grandchildren may well curse that viewpoint as they suffer the consequences of global warming. But so long as the Pollyannas are in the majority those who behave otherwise have a real problem.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT Directed by: Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman

Written by: Curry and Matthew Hamachek

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 85 minutes

Unrated (occasional obscenity, brief glimpses of animal cruelty and mob violence)

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