People say the forests are quiet. The forests are not quiet.” In fact, the forests of southeast Alaska ring with the voices of native Alaskans, with the hum of chainsaws, and, the film Musicwood tells us, with the notes of guitars.
At the heart of the film is the story of the guitar makers at Taylor, Martin, and Gibson learning where their wood comes from, following it to its source, and engaging with the corporation that is behind the unsustainable clearcutting of Sitka spruce. This is a journey designed by Greenpeace to use this high profile industry to “organize the market as a catalyst for change.” And it’s a powerful experience for these guitar makers. “I had never seen clearcutting before,” one admits.
Viewers, too, see the harvesting operations from the ground and from the air: striking footage of miles of clearcuts, stumps, and bare ground. Humanity needs these reminders. Anything paper or wooden, even a beautiful guitar, comes from a tree, a forest, a landscape. In communicating this fundamental, oft-forgotten fact, the film excels.
The complicated part of the story, though — and the plotline that the film has a harder time conveying — is that the corporation doing the clearcutting is Sealaska, an Alaska native corporation. While located in the Tongass National Forest, the land from which these 500 to 600 year old spruce are harvested is native land, home of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. “We revere the land, but we also utilize the land,” says Sealaska’s vice chair, making the case that the timber industry provides an economy to these tribes.
Yet it seems that the link between resource extraction and local economic vitality is not so direct. “I have never seen any money go for this economy,” says one native woman interviewed in the film. To her, the forests that the people depend on are being cut without thought, to the last tree. “And then what?” she wonders.
This, to your very biased reviewer, who researches logging on native lands on the other side of Canada, is the real issue in the rainforests of Alaska. From the claims that the money from logging has led to advancement of native issues, to the seemingly made-up tree felling ceremony that Sealaska stages for the visiting guitar makers, to the differences in opinion about whether logging will be just “a short, bad memory in our history” or a lasting economic force, to the links between current rates of poverty and past forced assimilation under U.S. government policy — it is clear that there is a lot more to the local tensions surrounding logging on native lands than is dealt with in Musicwood.
This is not to insinuate that Musicwood isn’t thought-provoking, or that it does not deal with important issues. The narrative of the film is engaging, and the entire premise — the triangular collaboration between environmentalists, music companies, and timber corporations — is fascinating.
Still, that frame feels narrower than the bigger issues at hand. Film time that could be spent in the spruce forests and native communities of Alaska is instead spent with the guitar makers and players. Ecological and cultural complexities are simplified. While Musicwood does make for a great story, and, I hope, vibrant discussion in the halls of FES, the guitar theme can carry the film just so far. As legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earl puts it at the end, “They’re only guitars.”