One thing we like to say about a good documentary is, “It makes you think.” When unpacked, that statement can mean, “It upsets your most basic moral convictions and complicates the values you had once held with the least internal conflict.” This is one reason we like documentaries. We want to be challenged to think.
To want to be challenged. In our noble moments, this is one reason we like documentaries. I guess I didn’t walk into the Wilma yesterday wanting to question my stance on terrorism (before: “It’s bad.” After: “It’s bad, but when you consider their motivations…?”), but if I am a person who seeks out experiences that will make me think, then I guess I got what was coming to me.
Marshall Curry’s If A Tree Falls is a beautiful film. It follows a former member of the militant environmental organization the Earth Liberation Front (E.L.F.) as he faces a life sentence plus three hundred years for what the federal government calls acts of terrorism, what he calls arson and destruction of property. For the duration of the film, the audience must inhabit the murky border of activism and extremism.
Complexity is unpleasant. The greater complication an issue is viewed in, the more difficult it is to consider. Complexity avoids our insight; it is no wonder, then, that we avoid complexity.
Much has been made of the fact that in the hundreds of arsons that the E.L.F. took credit for, no one was killed or injured. Does this mean they were not terrorists? They targeted high-profile organizations and landmarks in order to draw media attention to their cause, which is important to my definition of what a terrorist is—but that isn’t to say that I think they should be punished the same as those who take lives indiscriminately. Is all terrorism created equal? That’s a question I never necessarily wanted to reckon with.
In If A Tree Falls radicalization feels frighteningly close by. It’s as if to say: does this piss you off? Cutting down old-growth forests pisses me off. Police brutality pisses me off. I found myself uncomfortably inhabiting the same outrage that first caused those young activists to burn down the Oregon Ranger Station in 1996.
Question: what quotient of activism is strategy, and what quotient the letting of rage?
To watch the best documentaries is to practice a terrible empathy. We understand deeply, we identify, and we are left with even less certainty of how to go forward. If A Tree Falls made me think: about the political and practical uses of terrorism as a term, about large and small applications of justice, about who in America has the right to address injustice and what means are available to them. In the end, for better or for worst, I felt paralyzed by the sheer scale and the sadness, the humanity of it.
Essay by BSDFF Promo Team writer Alice Bolin