Maxine Trump’s Musicwood is a tale of simplicity hidden in a tangle of agendas. The Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the largest National Forest in the USA, is being severely depleted by the clear-cutting tactics of the Native American corporation that owns it, Sealaska. Greenpeace steps in, attempting to curtail the land abuses in play, but is met with distrust and anger.
Attempting a different angle, Greenpeace approaches the presidents and CEOs of major guitar-making companies Taylor, Martin and Gibson to discuss the destruction in the Tongass, something that these guitar corporations are not only ignorant of, but ignorant of what it means for their businesses. The spruce that is utilized for the soundboards for their guitars comes almost exclusively from the Tongass, and that supply could be gone in less than a decade if nothing changes. Greenpeace educates the CEOs, and the MusicWood environmental coalition is formed.
Thus, the stage is set for the three parties to try and work out their differences and save the Tongass, amid distrust and sometimes skewed agendas and motivations. The guitar makers bring press to the situation as they band together to save the Tongass, Sealaska sees their cooperation as something that could help them with land negotiations with the U.S. government and Greenpeace hopes that shining a different light on the importance of the forest rather than the same song they’ve been singing, and Sealaska has been tuning out, will finally make a difference.
This is a film of such complexity, it’s often unsettling just to follow along. The clear cutting of huge swaths of Tongass National Forest is obviously a bad idea, so you get where Greenpeace is coming from. At the same time, the guitar manufacturers, at least initially, are hard to side with because they don’t seem to be concerned with the forest so much as losing their resources. Likewise, the Sealaska corporation that owns the forest is adamant that they don’t want outsiders telling them what they can or can’t do with their land; considering the horrible history and abuse of Native Americans and their land, you get why they’d be so steadfast in feeling that way.
Then again, while the corporation seems to be keen on destroying their land for material gain, those Native Americans who actually live in the area oppose the land abuse, and see little from the profits of the corporation being re-invested in the community, so there’s a split there. Meanwhile the guitar manufacturers are given a crash course on environmental impact concerning the Tongass, a lesson that we learn with them. Considering their impact on the forest for guitars is so miniscule, their interests turn to saving the forest more so than just protecting their businesses. Greenpeace winds up sounding reasonable, if not equally as stubborn as Sealaska, and the corporation appears to be listening. But then it all goes to hell again.
It’s an intense story, with unexpected twists and turns. Heroes and villains aren’t always clear, and motivations evolve, but the destruction of the forest is always there pointing a finger that, no matter who you might be sympathizing with in this moment, this devastation cannot continue. Thus it’s a very simple situation that seems insanely complex.
But that’s the toughest thing to handle when watching this film, making sense of what’s going on and why. It’s an intellectual and emotional journey, and you go back and forth and round and round quite a bit, but in the end it’s still simple. The forests need to survive. A way eventually presents itself that could satisfy everyone involved, but then it becomes a question of follow through.
Musicwood is a great looking documentary; the cinematography in this one is breath-taking and even the simplest of talking heads segments look good. And ultimately the narrative isn’t as confusing in the end as it may feel in the middle. When you really parse what matters, that a tree giving oxygen into the world so that we may be breath may be more important than whether or not your next acoustic guitar is made with sitka spruce, or the Sealaska corporation can pay their executives a bonus, then the film reveals the strength in its simplicity.
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