wed 18/09/2019

Storyville - If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Storyville - If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, BBC Four

Storyville - If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, BBC Four

A balanced, thoughtful and provocative film on the line between activism and terrorism

An Earth Liberation Front activist surveys a bleak, pillaged landscapeAK - BBC Pictures © Marshall Curry

Daniel McGowan is a convicted terrorist. As a former leading member of the Earth Liberation Front, listed as the FBI’s number one domestic terrorist organisation, the thirtysomething New Yorker with a gentle, rather guileless demeanour was convicted in 2007 on multiple counts of arson and conspiracy. No one was killed during these attacks and no one has ever been killed or physically injured in the course of any ELF action. But that’s not to say we were meant to feel entirely sympathetic to McGowan or, indeed, to the ELF .

This excellent film, by Sam Cullman and Marshall Curry, was balanced, thoughtful and provocative. Footage of burning buildings housing local businesses that had been set alight by ELF members was intercut with scenes of devastating deforestation. We also witnessed riot police targeting pepper spray into the eyes of helpless protesters as they were held down, then heard of an increasingly radical wing of the ELF talking of "upping their game" – that is, of targeting people, not just buildings.

The documentary allowed both sides of this intransigent war to speak

And then there was one terrible scene of horse slaughter as wild horses were rounded up on government land in Oregon and sent to a meat-packing plant. Ten years of peaceful protest had gained no ground at all, and so the plant was targeted by the ELF and razed to the ground. As it couldn’t afford to rebuild, the business went bust. This was a victory not just for the ELF but for the town, and particularly for the town’s river, which had been continually flooded with blood and waste from the site. The ELF’s arson attack became a model for direct action protest.

The documentary allowed both sides of this intransigent war to speak. It spoke to investigating officers, to the assistant US attorney, to activists themselves and to those whose businesses had been destroyed. It was made clear that amongst mainstream protesters few appeared to support the actions of the arsonists.

A good job was made of raising the question of the efficacy of peaceful protest on the one hand, and direct action on the other. But the film-makers also put the spotlight on the protesters themselves. Who exactly were these “eco-terrorists”? And what had turned Daniel, who had been just a regular guy with no prior political convictions, someone who, in fact, had majored in business and had worked for a large PR company and whose father happened to be a policeman… well, what had turned a guy like him into someone who could commit arson? And it was here that our sympathies once again faltered.

Daniel spoke exactly like a religious convert, and as he spoke of his epiphany - of the blinds suddenly “being lifted from my eyes”, and of being able to see what was happening around him as if “for the first time”, he began to sound increasingly gullible and increasingly stupid. However big or small the action, he seemed constitutionally unable to think ahead in terms of possible real-life consequences. His sister talked of once coming home and seeing all the labels of the food cans in her kitchen removed – for recycling purposes. When she pointed out what might have been blindingly obvious to everyone else, that she could now no longer tell whether she had a can of meatballs in her hand or cat food, Daniel admitted that he hadn't actually thought of that. 

Less “endearing” was his reaction when he set fire to a university department which carried out genetic research on trees. The fire had got out of hand and the library and surrounding departments were burned to the ground. Daniel felt bad about the library and confessed that it just hadn’t occurred to him that that might happen. In fact, he said he was “amazed” that the fire had spread. “Oh, I really have to think about consequences,” he said, as if a light had suddenly switched on. Meanwhile, and on the basis of wrong information, another business bit the dust because of his actions.

Wherever your sympathies to the environmental cause lie (and some of these causes now appear to be very misconceived indeed, such as the destruction of GM research labs) these guys were not only zealots but were completely hapless. The documentary didn't need to tell us any of this, it just did a brilliant job of showing us in as even-handed a way as possible.   

Daniel spoke exactly like a religious convert, and as he spoke of his epiphany he began to sound increasingly gullible and increasingly stupid

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For whom did your sympathies falter? For the children who's eyes were being pepper-sprayed? For those "stupid" (your word) enough to destroy property when their legitimate and peaceful protests against the desecration of their countryside went unheeded? I don't know where you are coming from Fisun but suggest you return there as quickly as possible.

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