Musicwood is both an environmental documentary and a music documentary, and it treads unusual ground for both genres, locating the heart of the acoustic guitar in the heart of America’s biggest forest. For generations top luthiers have lovingly crafted their soundboards – the top piece of the instrument’s body – out of Sitka spruce from the Tongass National Forest on Alaska’s southeastern coastal strip. In recent years, logging in the forest has rapidly ramped up to serve growing Asian lumber markets; according to Greenpeace, at current rates of clear-cutting the centuries-old giants deep in the Tongass will be gone in a matter of decades.
The environmental group came up with an innovative strategy: eschewing its more radical tactics, it enlisted some of the world’s top guitar makers to come together as the Music Wood Coalition. Normally fierce competitors, Martin, Gibson, Taylor, Fender, and Yamaha collectively advocated for sustainable logging in the Tongass, following the standards of the international Forest Stewardship Council. Another wrinkle: in this case, the logging wasn’t being done by the stereotypical remorseless bureaucracy or rapacious multinational, but by the Sealaska Corporation, locally owned by Native Americans of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes, who are understandably wary of white activists and executives suggesting what they ought to do with land taken from their ancestors and regained only through decades of legal and legislative struggle.
The first feature doc from Maxine Trump, a British TV veteran now based in the States, Musicwood chronicles this delicate dance of corporate, political, ecological, and musical interests, tinged with past injustice and fears for the monumental forest’s future, over years of negotiation, promise, and frustration. The story’s various angles are illustrated with historical asides; stunning and sobering scenes of the glorious but shrinking Tongass; and demonstrations of acoustic splendor from players like Steve Earle, Kaki King, and members of Yo La Tengo, Turin Brakes, and the Antlers. Musicwood premieres in Chicago at CIMMFest, April 20. We spoke to director Trump from her New York digs.
MFW: How did you become aware of the MusicWood Coalition and the connection between logging and guitar-making?
Maxine Trump: I was making another film on Alaska, on the Bering Sea, about fish issues – subsistence fishing issues and deep sea trawling, and how it was affecting Native Alaskans on the sea. That’s when I heard about the devastation on the land and about Greenpeace trying to get the guitar CEOs together, which just felt so unusual – that Greenpeace would sit down with CEOs like that, trying to get competitors together to look at this issue. They didn’t realize quite how drastic it had become for them, getting the spruce soundboards from Alaska. They get most of the other wood from around the world. A lot of those woods are in jeopardy too, but they didn’t understand how difficult it was going to be in America, sourcing wood from an American forest. It just felt so unique that I had to pick up a camera and try and persuade them to allow me to come along.
A big part of the story is their journey, almost as much as the actual issue of the logging – the guitar CEOs traveling this path from ignorance to engagement, to activism, to a sense of how frustrating it can be to engage with issues at that level.
What I didn’t want to do is make another green documentary that was – we all know that plenty of forests are in trouble, and we all feel a little, “Well, what actually can we do?” What I didn’t want this film to do was give you another heartbreaking story where there were no solutions. There had to be a story there that would interest people. As soon as I heard about [Taylor Guitars co-founder] Bob Taylor, [Martin CEO] Chris Martin, and Dave Berryman from Gibson getting together, it was a human interest story as well.
Was your own journey with this film and this issue similar?
It was. Being a Brit, what do I know about Native American issues? And because it is Native Americans logging in this area, I felt very aware that this isn’t my history. My producer is American, the cameraman is American, and we worked with Native American consultants as well, so my knowledge has totally grown. And of the rainforest. So few people know about the Tongass rainforest, and it’s absolutely spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I’ve been to the Redwoods, I’ve been a bit of an international traveler and seen a lot of areas in the world that are incredible. It’s a jewel.
There are three distinct interests in this film: Greenpeace, the guitar makers, and the Sealaska corporation. Was it difficult getting them all on board? Do you think not being American helped – not being viewed as coming to this with a preordained agenda?
My producer thinks it definitely did help. I can’t pretend that it wasn’t incredibly difficult to have these three voices and to try and ensure that we weren’t taking – you know, to be journalists, and to represent what was factually happening, and to be very level-headed in our journalism. We very much wanted to include the history of the Native Americans in the area, because they didn’t get all of their land. That’s the truth, and it’s been the very sad truth for a lot of Native Americans. I mean, we could have made three documentaries. So that was a huge challenge. It was only pointed out to me recently that maybe being an outsider helped. We had to talk at length, and, as every documentary maker has to do, encourage people to talk to us. Sometimes my British accent can help, and sometimes it can hinder [laughs].
I was thinking a lot watching it of the larger debate that’s going on about resource extraction and climate change in a world that’s changing economically. There’s a real echo in what the Natives from Sealaska say with what you hear from China and India: “For hundreds of years you exploited these resources, and now you don’t want us to do it? You don’t want us to profit from this lumber?”
I totally hear you.
Was this on your mind as you were making the film? The turns it took into these areas, did that surprise you?
I didn’t know what [to expect], and I think that’s what can be so wonderful about documentary making, and also so difficult. You never know where the story’s going to end up. You have to be open to the story taking you anywhere. There’s a huge history of environmentalism in the area – a long journey of environmentalists working really hard, and fighting hard against the federal government, because a lot of the area is federally owned and a lot of that forest is logged too. It did feel difficult [for Greenpeace] coming to Native Americans and saying, “Look what’s happened on the federal land next door. Can you do it better?” The federal land has much more limitations on clear-cut size, and that’s all due to environmental activism. Private land which is Native American-owned doesn’t have those same limitations. That’s why Greenpeace went to them and kind of said, “Listen, if you keep clear-cutting with no limits, you are running out of wood.”
I want to get into the music aspect as well. Do you play yourself?
No, I don’t, and I really wish I did [laughs]. Actually Chris Martin of Martin guitars doesn’t play. That made me feel better. But I am thinking of taking lessons, because some of those guitars I’ve seen in the workshops were just gorgeous. It’s more that I wouldn’t have made a documentary about guitars if I didn’t love music. And that the bands that I love just marvelously said yes. I’m a big fan of Yo La Tengo, I’m a big fan of Lambchop, I’m a big fan of the Antlers. That is a bit of a dream come true for me, because I really love folk music, I love acoustic guitar music.
Was that the driving factor in who you selected – just “people I like”?
Yes and no. We’ve had to live with the music, obviously, through countless screenings. [Josh Granger,] the producer and editor – the producer is also the editor – he’s very knowledgeable on music too, and we had to enjoy it. If you think of a soundtrack, generally it’s music you enjoy, or the tone is right. Yo La Tengo and Steve Earle have a legacy that people will trust, and that was very important. Like there are elders from the tribe in the film, I wanted a very elder statesman acoustic guitarist. And then with Kaki King, she’s a real virtuoso. It was important to me that you could see the actual guitar being played, and the skill. As Chris Martin says, you can make an acoustic guitar sound like an orchestra. It rings out, and those sounds are ringing as you’re still playing, so it’s layered. Kaki King really brings that out.
The movie ends in an uncertain place, as far as the issues it raises are concerned. Did you come away feeling like we’re just going to have to accept that guitars are not going to sound the same?
From watching the film I think there are two conclusions you can draw. One, over in America the [Forest Stewardship Council] certification is little known. In Europe it’s very well known and you see it everywhere. What I’m really happy with is that you can watch our film – and people have even said this to me – “Thank goodness there’s something I can do at the end of it. I can buy tissues that are FSC-certified. I can buy paper from Staples that is FSC-certified. I can buy guitars that are FSC-certified.” There’s something the audience can tangibly do.
Then, the story with the guitars – this is the state of the world, forests are changing, and we have to really look after our forests. If you have a flaw [in the wood grain], it doesn’t change the sound of the music, it doesn’t change the sound of the guitar. I think that’s why the guitar guys are happy that the film is out there, because they, all the time, are trying to encourage the traditionalists to not always seek the best of the best. I think that’s a good thing, fundamentally, if this film can reach the people that are buying the guitars and suggest to them, listen, just make a few different choices in what you buy, it doesn’t have to be a spruce tree that’s 300 years old. It could be a younger tree that makes a four-piece soundboard [instead of the traditional two-piece]. The sound isn’t different.
Chicago Premiere at CIMMfest: Sat., 4/20 @ 6PM.
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