By Natasha Samreny
Terrorist. Revolutionary. Activist. Each word is charged with emotional and political meaning. Advocate. Leader. Liberator. How could they all refer to the same person? This documentary tells the story of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an international movement dedicated to oppose and expose profit-driven practices that destroy the environment. By the turn of the 21st century, the FBI said it considered the ELF the major domestic terror in the United States.
Here, director Marshall Curry presents the movement’s story through the lens of experience of Oregon-based activist Daniel McGowan. McGowan is one of several individuals arrested starting in 2005 as part of the FBI’s sweeping arrests of environmental activists through “Operation Backfire”.
We meet McGowan in his sister’s apartment where he spends several months on house arrest in addition to the years he still faces in prison under charge of arson at a major northwest lumber company. This is what happens to revolutionaries who fight against corporate greed and federally protected environmental destruction in the U.S. He is one example of scores who have participated in years of peaceful protests, letter-writing, media activism and civil disobedience to stop recent extensive and extreme harvesting of centuries-old forests, and mass slaughters of wild horses (in addition to other events).
When authorities respond with riot gear, arrests, physical abuse, and other tactics, activists retaliate by damaging physical property of leading companies—on a small scale at first, then by burning buildings when such operations didn’t cease. It’s disgusting to watch footage of police physically prying opening protestors’ eyes and cutting their pants to pour pepper spray inside. Striking to see photography of pristine of mist-painted forests of the Northwest juxtaposed against images of miles of raped woodland with guts rooted and piled up like toothpicks on the side.
Granted, such events are usually less striking the more literate one is about them. But the filmmakers don’t seem like they’re trying to advocate for one side or another—they include developed viewpoints and information from several sides: lumber companies, detectives, activists, federal prosecutors, loggers-turned-activists, family members, the convicted. It’s an informative look at a striking movement and series of ELF moments in U.S. history.
Liberators. Leaders. Advocates. Activists. Revolutionaries. Terrorists. In hand with a literal look at recent environmental activism in the Northwest, this film engages viewers in a figurative discussion about what these words mean. Without going overboard it informs. The documentary delivers a complicated story in an accessible medium. But I felt unresolved at the end. Maybe that makes sense—this is an ongoing story with no resolution in sight; more literally its subject protagonist is still in jail, and controversial environmental policies on the domestic and international fronts remain.