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The BBC and its misanthropic mates

A gushing documentary about the Earth Liberation Front was blind to the group’s many, massive problems.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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BBC4 doesn’t just do interesting archival documentaries and televisual essays on obscure topics, don’t you know? It was bang up to date this week. Idealistic liberals taking a stand against greedy corporates on behalf of a silent majority, armour-clad cops pepper-spraying young pacifist protesters, shop windows getting smashed in by kids radicalised by police brutality, and buildings burning long into the night. This really was filmmaking from the frontline.

Don’t worry: this isn’t an homage to BBC Radio 4’s pop-history series The Long View, where I suddenly turn around and announce it’s actually 1711 I’m talking about. Yet neither was If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front a precise treatment of the Occupy movement and other related protests of 2011, although there was a considerable amount of its DNA present. If most of the people featured here hadn’t been banged up, I’m sure they would have been out occupying Wall Street.

It says everything about the strange times we’re living in that the emergence of eco-terrorism in the immediate aftermath of 1999 Seattle anti-globalisation riots is now being seen as something of a halcyon time. The IMF and World Bank were only blamed for toppling elected representatives of countries you’d never really heard of in those days, rather than ones you’d go on a family holiday to. Back then, the EU still resembled a bumbling, but well-meaning, foreign tourist desperate to be liked, rather than someone you felt was about to smash you in the face even if you’d already surrendered your wallet. And all manner of problems could be solved if only you asked nicely and marched somewhere while listening to Rage Against the Machine.

Such are my memories of my vague teenage perceptions at the time. It may not, in truth, have been a million miles away from the worldview of some of the actors in this tragic-comic tale. It focused on Dan McGowan, an earnest and well-meaning young New Yorker who became radicalised by Seattle after years of growing frustration at mainstream indifference to formal environmental protest and being beaten up by cops. This Storyville film caught up with him awaiting trial for terrorism charges for two arson attacks, unrepentant for his actions and indignant that he was being charged under the same legislation which applies to more violent people with less justification.

It was difficult not to feel a little sorry for McGowan, who was clearly more of an oaf than a genuine threat to society. As ever with the post-9/11 world, there were some serious eyebrows to be raised about the exercise and extension of anti-terrorism charges. Then again, McGowan also burned down a university library (along with a farm growing genetically modified crops which, it turns out, actually weren’t modified in any way, shape or form). He may have been a nice boy and good student from a respectable home who didn’t hurt anyone but himself, but then so apparently is the ‘Underpants Bomber’ (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallub). That this apparently naive and easily led young man held a succession of right-on NGO and not-for-profit jobs – including at an anti-domestic violence charity at the time of his arrest – was the kind of smirk-inducing detail which could’ve done with more analysis.

It was evident that the filmmakers themselves had plenty of sympathy for McGowan and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), rather downplaying its links to the intimidation-friendly and disruptive Animal Liberation Front. Nonetheless, perhaps unavoidably, If a Tree Falls offered an effective portrait of many of the ills of modern protest: enjoyably, many of the interviewees complained about ELF’s fragmentation due to various factions engaging in self-righteous stunts rather than democratic debate, which seemed a little rich coming from members of an organisation largely founded for exactly that purpose.

Similarly, for all the virtues it makes of its lack of leaders and autonomy of its members, there were a rather large number of mistakes made by activists. The footage of the police beating up kids in Seattle was offered as justification for radicalising ELF members. But the footage of protesters smashing up neighbourhood stores and asserting themselves pompously in the tradition of the Boston Tea Party suddenly doesn’t look too clever following the London riots and with the contemporary Tea Party, does it? Of course, the right-on McGowan was appalled by these actions and insisted they weren’t in the spirit of his fellow ‘elves’ – as he did for pretty much every screw-up associated with the ELF.

Sadly, the only detail to be taken away from an overview of this mess is that very little has been learned by either side over the past decade. Contemporary protesters in the Occupy mould are making even more of a virtue of their leaderless organisation and willingness to eschew debate in favour of spectacle. The police are increasingly more willing to crack a few heads of non-violent activists (and become weirdly touchy-feely when it comes to actual rioters). And those same protesters, already fuelled by self-righteous indignation, force themselves into increasingly aggressive stand-offs with increasingly well-armoured police.

Perhaps more insight could have been gained by taking a more critical approach: it would have been nice to see an assessment of the genuine impacts of environmental and animal-rights activists, including roads not being built and animal-testing laboratories closing down, rather than the implication that they turn to violence because the world just won’t listen. But If a Tree Falls preferred to treat its subject as having the follies of youth, rather than being part of a fallacy of the age. You suspect a very similar documentary will be made 10 years from now, telling a very similar story.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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