Review of If a Tree Falls written & directed by Marshall Curry
This was one of five documentaries nominated for this year’s Oscars for best documentary. Since I’ve been unable to view the winning documentary Undefeated, I can’t compare the two. But this was certainly a worthy contender.
The film is about the actions of a group of so-called echo terrorists and the repercussions they ultimately faced as a result of causing substantial property damage through arson. The focus of the film is on one of the members of the group, Daniel McGowan. Daniel was arrested by the FBI in 2005 and charged with taking part in two arsons. He was facing a possible life sentence. The filmmakers use that possible outcome to create credible suspense throughout the film.
There are always two sides to every story, and all sides of this story are given equal time. We hear from Daniel and some of his co-conspirators. We hear from the victims of the arsons. And we hear from the police and prosecutor who spend years trying to track them down. It all makes for a compelling story.
When you listen to Daniel explain his motivation for taking part in the arsons, you can’t help but agree with him. I would never condone destroying property, but I understand his reasoning. At the same time, you have to sympathise with the victims of the arson. As for the police and prosecutor, they too had their own perspective. One that changed over time.
Prior to taking part in the arsons, those involved all agreed to remain silent if arrested. That all changed once they were behind bars and saw the evidence against them and the possible jail time they could receive. Some caved in quickly and agreed to testify against the others. Some held out till the end. What happened to Daniel? You’ll have to watch the film for the answer to that question.
With the benefit of hindsight, Daniel admits that he made a mistake. The arsons did little to bring about the changes they were hoping for. In one case, they targeted one business using inaccurate information, making their actions even less justifiable. But were they terrorists? Not in my mind. They were free spirits who wanted only to protect the environment. When their protests and peaceful demonstrations did nothing but provoke a brutal response from the police, they chose a different means of getting their message out. In the end, this film accomplishes what they could not.