Hot Docs, North America's biggest documentary film festival, kicks off its 2011 run on April 28 in Toronto. Jam-packed with documentaries running through May 8, Moviefone Canada will be there from start to finish, offering up looks at some of the festival's noted films.

There is a time in many young people's lives where getting involved in a protest seems like a good idea. It is a right in many countries, and well-functioning democratic societies promote these acts of dissent. The hope is that something positive will happen: policy change, business practices reined-in, or public opinion swayed. But what happens when nothing happens?

'If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front' is a documentary about these specific conditions.

For a group of activists concerned with the US forestry practice of clear-cutting and logging old-growth woods, protesting was encouraged, but it wasn't enough. Their secret acts of vandalism, property damage and arson put them in the official 'terrorist' category of crime, and the Bush Government was looking to make an example out of whomever they could catch.

This is the story of ELF, otherwise known as the Earth Liberation Front. Their involvement with millions of dollars worth of property damage and the various secret cells they created helped them become a priority for the FBI throughout the 2000s. Director Marshall Curry has done a fantastic job humanizing the experience of being arrested for these types of crimes. Careful not to get too preachy with his narrative, he has filmed a selection of ELF members, sympathizers and traditional protesters to tell the story of environmental activism on the US west coast.



At the heart of his doc is the sobering process Justice Daniel McGowan must face after being identified and arrested as an ELF member. Thanks to a major undercover operation that pitted members of the group against each other, the Brooklyn native was detained in 2005. The doc joins his family in more present times as they cope with his dire set of circumstances.

Daniel's straight-talking sister is perhaps his greatest supporter. Not a radical herself, she selflessly raises over a million dollars for his bail, gives him a home to live in while under house arrest and supports him as he navigates his way through the legal labyrinth of federal terrorism charges.

As Dan walks by Ground Zero in New York City, he ponders how his acts of frustration (that saw him burning down empty forestry buildings) put him in the same legal category as the 9/11 terrorists. Facing hundreds of years in prison, the plea deal he's offered will label him a terrorist forever, truly testing his commitment to the cause.

'If A Tree Falls' reminds us that taking a serious stance on political policy and industry standards is a game played at your own risk. What can start as idealism can turn to tragedy, and it is your job as a viewer of this doc to decide if that's right.

Screenings:
Tuesday, May 3, 7PM – Cumberland 3
Thursday, May 5, 4:30PM – TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

For complete schedule and movie listings, visit the Hot Docs website.