If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which opens today in Los Angeles and will soon have a national rollout. Their warning, however, applies well to another fine doc, Project Nim, which is already playing in some cities and opens in LA today as well. As both films illustrate, tragedy has resulted historically whenever humanity messes with the environment and other species. Why didn't those of us old enough to remember heed those 1970's TV commercials for Parkay Margarine, in which viewers were cautioned: "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature"?
If A Tree Falls, directed by Marshall Curry (an Oscar nominee for Street Fight) and Sam Cullman (who also serves as cinematographer and previously shot What Would Jesus Buy?, among other documentaries), focuses on several members of a cell of the radical Earth Liberation Front, a.k.a. ELF. Since 1996, ELF members have engaged in acts of arson aimed at crippling such non-Earth friendly sites as timber companies, wild horse slaughterhouses, ski lodges (causing $12 million in damage at one such resort in Vail, Colorado) and SUV dealerships. ELF was subsequently labeled the "number one domestic terrorism threat" by the FBI... prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, anyway.
In 2005, 14 people associated with ELF were arrested. We hear first-hand here the personal stories of how some of these initially-docile individuals became environmentalists willing to sacrifice their own freedom and survival to prevent what one of the accused (and ultimately convicted) terms "the reckless destruction of the planet." Stepping in where protests and letter-writing campaigns against offending businesses had failed, ELF drew media attention to the plight of the environment while causing acts of destruction that — to the perpetrators' credit — never injured or killed anyone.
"It's hideous to be called a terrorist," says ELF member Daniel McGowan. I prefer to think of the subjects of If A Tree Falls as tree huggers with attitude, especially since we've seen what true, life-threatening terrorists can do. Without endorsing their tactics, I admire ELF's tenacity and efforts at educating the public. The movie gets a bit bogged down in legal and procedural details during its final 30 minutes but it will, hopefully, open eyes and hearts.
Project Nim is even more potent as an indictment against those who would try to manipulate "the natural order." Directed by Academy Award-winner James Marsh (Man on Wire) and winner of the Best Directing Award for World Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it is a probing exploration — at times painfully so — of humankind's arrogance as well as of the moral superiority some other species unwittingly possess.
Created from a combination of vintage footage, recent interviews with some of the surviving players, and re-created moments featuring an actor in a monkey suit, Project Nim recounts an extraordinary experiment during the 1970's in which an infant chimpanzee was removed from its natural mother only days after its birth and given to a human mother with instructions to raise it exactly as she would a human child. The goal: to determine whether humankind's closest relative could learn to communicate as a human being.
Utilizing American Sign Language, Nim (as the chimp was rather impersonally named) was taught a number of English words as well as how to dress himself and use the toilet. However, enduringly primitive and even violent actions by Nim indicated, as one researcher says in the film, "You can't give human nurturing to an animal that can kill you." After five years, the experiment's end was suddenly declared and Nim was relocated first to a chimpanzee research center in Oklahoma, then made a subject of medical research and ultimately abandoned to a solitary cage in an animal refuge in Texas.
Nim's journey is undeniably harrowing at times, and Project Nim may be tough for some animal lovers to get through. Gratefully, and wisely on Marsh's part, the challenging moments are leavened by enough cute and/or comic episodes of Nim interacting with his supporters both as a youth and as an adult that the film leaves one feeling hopeful rather than depressed. The humans involved, while sometimes well-meaning, are also revealed to be irreversibly ignorant with perhaps two exceptions: Dr. James Mahoney, who ultimately facilitated the transfer of numerous chimps, including Nim, from the bio-medical lab he managed to more hospitable surroundings, and Bob Ingersoll, who visited and continued to communicate with Nim for over 10 years before Nim's death at the age of 26 in 2000.
I'm all for trying to talk to the animals (some of my family members and friends even call me "Doctor Dolittle" due to the affinity seemingly shared between me and many non-human creatures), but I believe we ought to meet them on their linguistic level rather than unrealistically expect them to meet us on ours. I think that's the way Mother Nature... not to mention God... intended.
Project Nim: A-
If A Tree Falls: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.