Sydney Film Festival 2011: ‘If a Tree Falls’ + ‘The Hungry Tide’

[17 June 2011]

By Andrew Blackie

The documentaries screening at the Sydney Film Festival this year have had an environmental preoccupation, as demonstrated by these two on the same theme. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Frontfollows the activities and prosecution of members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), exploring the contentious issue of land degradation and what it means to be an environmental activist.

The documentary, which also screened at Sundance, is a comprehensive account of the ELF, a radical organisation which burnt down several logging factories and other buildings which they deemed to be harming the environment. At the peak of their activities, they were labelled the ‘number one domestic terrorist threat’ by the government, and the film is lucky to have the co-operation of several former ELF members, including Daniel McGowan, who at the end of the film is sentenced to several years in a prison specifically built for terrorists.

The group came together because of concern about the wide-scale logging of America’s old-growth forests, and cells quickly sprang up all over the country. It’s not hard to understand why the core membership became radicalised; one shocking sequence depicts riot police using tear gas and applying pepper spray to the eyes of peaceful protestors.Concluding that ‘putting a dent in their pockets’ was the only effective way to tackle the threat posed by harmful companies, the group progressed to setting fires and using explosives to damage buildings – crucially, they point out that they always made sure they were empty. One points out that, “we were able to do what thousands of letters of protest hadn’t”.With great irony, one lady opines in an interview that “property damage is still property damage” and is unacceptable. When asked what she thought of the Boston Tea Party, she smiles and responds, “I thought that was wonderful.”

The film asks difficult questions about moral equivalence that it is unable to answer, examining what it means to be a terrorist, especially post-9/11. McGowan points out that what they did was no worse than what major companies get away with with virtual impunity, giving the example of oil spills.If A Tree Fallsalso interviews the other side though, including the CEO of Superior Lumber, which had their factory burnt down by the ELF. He remarks that he still can’t understand why he was targeted by the group, that his business plants six trees for every one that they chop down, and that he considers himself an environmentalist.

The film is interesting and descriptive, but its even-handedness and impartiality prevent us from really understanding why or whether we should feel sympathy for the goals of the ELF. Either way, this is a radical story that demonstrates that while governments and international delegates falter and bicker over what action to take, some are prepared to go to great lengths to protect the environment.

For the island nation of Kiribati (pronounced ‘kiri-bus’), environmental activism is not an option. Situated in the Pacific Ocean, the country, comprising several island groups stretched across an area almost as wide across as Australia, may soon disappear entirely. With the highest point above sea level around six feet, the islands are being encroaching uponby tides at an increasing rate due to climate change which are predicted to totally submerge the country if there is a global rise in temperature of two degrees. Without outside help, the government does not have the resources to prevent the forced relocation of the population and permanent loss of their homeland.The Hungry Tidefollows their plight.

The film begins before the Copenhagen conference, which with hindsight casts a pall of despair over it. Maria Tiimon, a Kiribati woman living in Sydney, has high hopes for the conference to produce a legally binding agreement to reduce emissions. Her story is full of sadness; her sense of a loss of connection from her homeland is followed by the death of her mother and the sickness of her father – this is matched with her anxiety and sense of responsibility for raising awareness about her country on the world stage.

The documentary shows us through location work and recollections how rapidly the country is disappearing; villages are being forced to relocate, crop areas are being made barren by the salt water, roads are being swallowed by the sea. The film’s post-Copenhagen section becomes increasingly hopeless; Kiribati was promised $30 billion by the major emitters to help combat climate change, but almost none of this has arrived, and the desperate rush to build and reinforce sea walls around the main islands is stymied by the country’s annual income of less than half a billion dollars.

The Hungry Tide is a documentary that should be widely seen, as it raises awareness about one of the weakest and most vulnerable countries of the world abandoned by the indifference of the strong, and shows vividly the consequences of those on the front-line of climate change. In a post-script, it notes tragically that global temperatures are expected to rise well above two degrees by the end of this century.

Tom Zubrycki

Tom Zubrycki

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