If A Tree Falls is a documentary on the origin, expansion, and collapse of an Earth Liberation Front (ELF) cell in Portland. Members of the cell were eventually captured and sentenced for a number of arson attacks.

The film is remarkable for its neutrality. It neither glorifes nor vilifies any participant, from activist to cop. The narrative begins long before the cell formed, documenting a rising frustration in the Oregon environmental community after a number of setbacks. In a particularly harrowing scene from 1997, protestors are shown being peppersprayed after climbing trees about to be felled in the center of town to make way for a carpack. The City of Portland had rescheduled their felling to a day before a public hearing on the matter to avoid debate. An activist in the film describes it as a day that “pissed a lot of people off”.

Though just as you are feeling sympathetic for activists the film includes interviews with policeman and prosecutors, as well as a logger whose headquarters was destroyed in a subsequent arson. A scene towards the end shows Daniel McGowan with his family in tears as he departs to begin his seven year sentence.

In watching you are asked to grapple with some tricky concepts: what are the limits of peaceful protest? Or non-peaceful protest? When is a charge of terrorism justified? If A Tree Falls doggedly avoids attempting to provide answers. In a Dot Earth interview with the director, Andrew Revkin described it as a “fearless exploration of complexity in a world drawn to oversimplified depictions of events and problems, heroes and villains.” This comes through in the trailer:

In the aforementioned interview, director Marshall Curry describes:

Our goal with the film is to nudge everyone out of their comfort zones a bit, get them to see issues from slightly different perspectives, and hopefully elevate the conversation about environmentalism, terrorism, activism, and how police should react to activism.

He has succeeded. This is exactly the type of journalism we need more of. I’ll be tracking down Curry’s two other documentaries: Street Fight and Racing Dreams.

McGowan is recently out of prison. His writing about the experience is worth reading.