Nominated for the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 84th Academy Awards, this story of the ELF is directed by Marshall Curry who’s last film was the excellent 2006 Oscar nominee Street Fight. As one will notice, the title uses “A Story Of¦” rather than “The Story Of¦” which is for two reasons. Firstly this documentary revolves primarily around the story of just one member of the ELF, and secondly because the ELF is so wide ranging and made up of so many separate cells that it would be very hard to tell the definitive story of the group in a standard length feature.
The word ‘cells’ suggests terrorists and indeed the US government would agree. The ELF would describe itself as an environmental activism group but it was considered in 2001 as the top domestic terror to the US and currently carries the label of ‘eco-terrorists’. The tag is sensational but perhaps not completely unfair – many of the ELF’s cells actively carry out destructive acts of arson against organisations it deems to be destroying the environment and although to date no lives have ever been lost to their actions, it is easy to see why their threat is taken seriously.
This particular story focuses on Daniel McGowan, an ELF member arrested in 2005 for his part in a double arson attack in Oregon the same year. Having previously acted as look out on other similar attacks, this time he was responsible for dousing vehicles in petrol and laying rags used to light huge blazes quickly for maximum destruction. Following the arrest of a fellow ELF member who agreed to co-operate with the authorities to gain leniency by wearing a wire, McGowan and many other activists were investigated and rounded up as part of Operation Backfire – an FBI crack down on eco-terrorists from ELF and ALF (the Animal Liberation Front).
After being initially placed in prison, McGowan was placed under house arrest awaiting trial which is where we pick up the story. Intertwined with personal interviews telling his individual story is the overarching story of the ELF. As a deliberately fragmented organisation with no central command to ensure it is hard for law enforcement to track, little is truly known about the members and their whereabouts. Whilst McGowan refuses to enter any sort of plea agreement to testify against fellow members for leniency, as the film goes on we learn that his position is not shared by the other indicted ELF members who testify against him.
Whilst it is easy to feel sympathy for him, Marshall Curry does a fairly good job of reminding us that whilst the cause of the ELF is noble, their extreme methods destroy livelihoods and the fact that no lives have ever been lost is not particularly relevant to the overall damage caused. The danger with focusing a documentary about an organisation like this on one member can be that the extremity is lost as things get too personal. Indeed that does inevitably happen here and perhaps could have been levelled out a little more along the way. Saying that, the US government’s stance on the group as terrorists is extreme in its own right and when McGowan is eventually sentenced, he is placed in a maximum security prison completely unsuited to someone who’s crime is ultimately arson without loss of life.