If a Tree Falls explores the ground between martyrdom and terrorism

Among the films shortlisted for an Academy Award next month is the powerful documentary If a Tree Falls. It chronicles the house arrest of Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist facing life in prison for the arson of an Oregon lumber company, and the movement to which he belonged, the Earth Liberation Front.

Far from taking sides, the film explores the middle and complex ground between martyrdom and terrorism–the latter being how the United States government saw McGowan’s actions. No matter how one feels about such volatile property destruction, it would be difficult, however, to leave the film without feeling some sympathy for McGowan. Perhaps it’s his own self-reflection and ultimate remorse that does it. But credit the filmmakers for creating an atmosphere conducive to humanization.

As director Marshall Curry noted in a recent interview, “It took a lot of time just explaining to people we were honestly interested in their point of view, and the film wasn’t going to be their point of view but it would reflect their point of view. That we were interested in having the best arguments from different sides bang against each other, rather than setting up straw men to knock down.”

Even the police are given their moment of self-reflection, where they’re able to transcend the black and white, good guy, bad guy mentality that’s so core to their profession. They seem to get that McGowan is not a terrorist and that on some deeply human level, his actions, which arose out of anger toward the destruction of nature and the urgency to see immediate results, as well as the alienation such beliefs often bring, are wholly understandable.

Nevertheless, for those who have studied nonviolence and know its success rates are far higher than violent uprisings–or simply witnessed the major events of the last year–the film will make you anxious to spread the Gospel, so to speak. It is so clear that the Earth Liberation Front, which rose in the mid 1990s as a response to the abuse of peaceful protesters, lacked a basic understanding of the dynamics of nonviolence. They saw young people getting pepper-sprayed at sit-ins and beat up by police and thought something bolder needed to be done. And so they did exactly what you shouldn’t do: alienate everyone who doesn’t share your point of view.

What they failed to consider, despite their efforts to ensure no one was ever hurt in an arson, was that their actions did hurt people, emotionally. As the film reveals, timber company owners feared for their lives and those of their family–something that only rallied the community and media against their environmental message.

Rebecca Solnit spoke to this kind of situation in her recent and widely praised essay on tactics and Occupy Wall Street.

So when episodes of violence break out as part of our side in a demonstration, an uprising, a movement, I think of it as a sabotage, a corruption, a coercion, a misunderstanding, or a mistake, whether it’s a paid infiltrator or a clueless dude. Here I want to be clear that property damage is not necessarily violence. The firefighter breaks the door to get the people out of the building. But the husband breaks the dishes to demonstrate to his wife that he can and may also break her. It’s violence displaced onto the inanimate as a threat to the animate.

It’s hard to ignore comparisons to Occupy Wall Street these days, but to be fair, it’s probably more than just coincidence that a film like this would come out now, this so-called “Year of the Protester.” Things have been building in this direction for quite a while and now ideas about activism are being discussed like never before, and the work of prominent nonviolent theorists has emerged to recognition on the global scale.

Curry himself is excited about the current relevance of his film and potential of a timeless message:

It has overlapped with the emergence of the Occupy movement, and that has been very interesting. The pepper spray stuff you see on the news could have been lifted from the movie. The frustration with the system is something we’re seeing now. I feel like the film is a cautionary tale for activists to think about the tactics they take and the ethics and effectiveness and legality of tactics.

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