By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
Towards the end of If a Tree Falls, a federal agent who spent a good chunk of his career pursuing the Earth Liberation Front sums up the film in a few sentences. His gist is, while you obviously cannot condone their acts of arson, once you get to know the people that committed them you can see how they were drawn into them, and maybe even begin to empathize.
This documentary spins that concept into a feature-length film, using a stunning amount of access to interview all of the principals in the ELF’s decade-plus run of, as some dubbed it, eco-terrorism. We hear from family members, fellow activists, victims of their crimes, and the FBI agents tasked with tracking them down. Finally, and most interestingly, we hear from the ELF members themselves, including ringleader Daniel McGowan, as they await trials and consider plea bargains. They plainly recount their crimes and the path leading to them without holding anything back.
Unlike Courtney Love, who probably has 3 or 4 more “Tell-Alls” left in her
That last paragraph is practically a toast already. It’s rare to see a documentary elicit so much candor from all sides of an issue. Too often, an agenda is plainly clear, and the best you can do is sift through the bias to find nuggets of usable information or just sit back and be entertained by a filmmaker’s force of personality.
I love you Michael Moore, but in no way does this qualify as a documentary
The team behind If a Tree Falls come as close to impartiality as one could hope for. They don’t use editing or effects to not-so-subtly sanctify or demonize anyone, and everyone gets their say. As difficult as it is to watch people’s eyes forced open to receive blasts of pepper spray or riot police clubbing protestors, the footage is depicting what actually happened, and is accompanied by footage and interviews explaining how a policeman struggles with anger after being pelted with bricks and bottles.
So, when the film finally gets around to making a statement towards the end of the film, that equating the burning of a parking lot full of SUVs in which no person died (the ELF arsons were all designed to avoid any loss of life) and an attack murdering thousands and seeking the same punishment for both is patently ridiculous, the credibility the film built up gives it that much more weight. If only more documentaries took a similar approach. The genre would have a more fitting place in the national debate.
Also, The National did the soundtrack. That’s A Toast right there.
I racked my brain for a reason to add a second beer, but I couldn’t find one. Sure, this isn’t the slickest or most controversial documentary of the year, but it accomplished exactly what it hoped to, and set a standard for issue films that I hope to see followed more often in the future.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every protest
Take a Drink: every time you hear the word “terrorist”
Take a Drink: for every cop you see
Drink a Shot: whenever you start getting angry