In the 17th Century, guitar makers determined that four woods are needed to make the best guitars. One of the woods needed is spruce, which serves as the top part of the guitar. In America, most of the spruce comes from the National Forest in Alaska, where the Native American corporation Sealaska is over harvesting the trees. It should be clear that of the untold number of spruce trees harvested in Alaska every year, only 150-200 of them are going to guitars. The overwhelming majority of them are sent to Asia.
Musicwood tells the story of an organization of guitar makers, such as Gibson, put together by Greenpeace, to try to lobby the corporation to slow the rate of deforestation to more sustainable levels.
The film succeeds largely at conveying the complexity of the issue, in large part because it involves a Native American corporation set up by the government. In the 1970’s, the United States government returned a large portion of Alaskan land to Native tribes. The tribes in Alaska rejected the idea of reservations, because they saw how poorly that had worked in the continental United States. Instead, they created corporations, with tribe members as shareholders. The leaders feel that they are bringing prosperity to their people.
However, many shareholders feel that they are not getting a real economy out of Sealaska, and they worry about the incredible rate of forest destruction. This is not simply environmentalism; many of the local aboriginal people still depend on the land for their food, including the salmon run, and the destruction of the forest will hurt their ability to survive.
At times towards the end, the editing was poor, because the pace of the film slowed. However, the film was beautifully shot, and while the filmmakers are sympathetic to Greenpeace, they are very fair to the members of Sealaska, and they have plenty of time to share their side of the story. They are distrustful of Greenpeace and Musicwood, but who can blame them for saying “White man speak with forked tongue?” (a quote from the movie).
This film serves as an intriguing amalgam of a music documentary and an environmental documentary, a difficult feat.
Photo courtesy of the Cleveland International Film Festival website