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The documentary Musicwood is making the rounds at film festivals, where crowds are keeping the filmmakers long after the closing credits for extended Q&A sessions. Pitched as “an adventure-filled journey, a political thriller with music at its heart,” it “stars” MI heavyweights Bob Taylor, Chris Martin, and Gibson’s Dave Berryman. The conflict is over the prized tone wood Sitka Spruce, which is one of the trees in the forest that is, from Greenpeace’s POV, being clear-cut with seemingly reckless abandon. Or is it just Native Americans who deserve to make their own decisions in the best interest of their own people?

The setting is the U.S.’s largest forest, the Tongass National Forest in southern Alaska, a rainforest-rich chunk of land with much eco-diversity, including trees perfect for instrument making. While grand, sweeping shots from the blue skies above show scabs of slayed trees where there was once pristine forest by design tugs at the viewer’s emotions, this is no straightforward tree hugger story, as the white hats and the black hats are not easily delineated. There is a “big corporation”… but professed nature-loving Native Americans run it. As for the guitar makers, well, halfway through the film, Gibson’s illegal trafficking of Madagascar wood comes to light.

While readers of MMR know of the ecological and legal challenges of acquiring tone wood for instruments, as we’ve been covering it for nearly a decade, it’s interesting to see the topic get mass audience treatment (the film is available on iTunes). MMR called up director Maxine Trump immediately after viewing and she was happy to discuss the movie.

MMR: What did you know about guitar making before you started working on this documentary?

Maxine Trump: [laughs] Nothing at all! I love acoustic music, and that’s why we included players like Steve Earle and Kaki King in the film – to get their perspective of great guitars. So we went at it from that angle – take a band, show some acoustic guitar playing; go into the guitar shops and show how these instruments are made; and then come to the story through the music and how the music instruments are created.

MMR: What’s been the reaction to the film so far?

MT: It’s been amazing across the board, especially at film festivals. I think we’ve been to 20 so far. In Cleveland, we just packed 350 people in to see it. We’re reaching a wide audience. We’re hoping to screen it at the NAMM show in January.

 

MMR: Are people surprised? Mad? Confused how this could be happening?

MT: You hit all three [emotions]. First, people didn’t know the forest existed. Second, they had no idea how guitars are made and why some woods are better than others, and didn’t know the history of that. Even Chris [Eldridge] from the Punch Brothers, who owns a 1939 Martin Adirondack guitar with rosewood back and sides, was delighted to have things explained [by the guitar makers] – there was much that he didn’t even know.

People learning that the Native Americans on the land made a deal with the U.S. government to form their own corporation [Sealaska – which is a for-profit corporation run by a board of 13 tribal members] is a surprise, and confusions or angers some. But as we show, like any other corporation, they are thinking profits.

 

MMR: As they should. So the cliché that American Indians are all pro-environment is severally challenged in this film.

MT: We deliberately screened Musicwood eight or so times in the heart of logging country and to Native American audiences to get a sense of it. I was sensitive that, as a white woman, why should I be telling this story? And being fair was important.

But a very satisfying moment was when after one showing, a tribal elder came up to me and said, “Listen, don’t think of us any differently than any other race. We’re people like any other, and some want money, and others want to save resources.” That was a wonderful moment for me, because it showed we were telling a very American story.

The board members of the corporation are just like any other – they want to be successful, they want to be responsible to their shareholders. Definitely the corporation may not come across in the best light, but also we cover that there is definitely a voice of other Native Americans on that land who don’t want clear cutting.


MMR: The Sitka is just one type of tree in the forest that is being clear-cut, yes?

MT: No forest is purely one type of tree, so there’s hemlock and other spruces in that forest that are being cut with the other types.

I learned how the Sitka grows so beautifully, and what it means to have a soundboard of a guitar made from it, and what it means to the guitar makers who participated in the film. Yet it’s part of all the wood that gets cut, crated whole, and goes primarily to China where it’s turned into all kinds of things, including making diapers!

 

MMR: Do you think people will see this as merely “anti-logging”?

MT: I really wanted to make sure that it’s not an anti-logging movie, because we live in a world where we need wood, so wood needs to be cut down. What we really want people to understand is to encourage a different type of forestry – to still live off the land, but use the wood wisely.

One encouraging thing that has happened since filming is we were invited to a small island in Canada, Haida Gwaii, which is near Tongass with a similar eco-system. They have a logging economy but also believe in protecting the land. They make money – not as much as the Sealaska Corporation – but they seem to be making it work. In fact, they are talking to Martin about being a supply chain for them.

 

MMR: The big “twist” in the film is the Gibson legal problems with the Fish & Wildlife Service and the related raid that happened in the middle of all this tree-saving effort. Was that a surprise to you?

MT: It came out of nowhere, it really did. It was hard, especially knowing that Gibson is doing good work in South America and other forests. It was something that happened that really was beyond the scope of the film, and we just had to sit with it. It was a hard moment, but it had to be part of the story.

 

MMR: Spoiler alert – throughout the film, the guitar makers are trying to come to some agreement with Sealaska, and there are lots of hopeful moments, and then nothing comes of it. Greenpeace and the guitar makers wanted some of their wood to be Forest Stewardship Certified, and they got nothing.

MT: Everybody was incredibly hopeful about getting wood FSC certified, and the Musicwood group even offered to pay for it. But the corporation said, “No, this is something we want to do on our own.” Part of the problem is while we’ve been following this story for five years, they had already gone through so much wood… but who knows what will happen at this point.

 

MMR: So it’s okay that your movie ends the way it does? With seemingly nothing being accomplished?

MT: We didn’t want to make a film with a pretty Hollywood ending, but I’m hoping people leave the theater understanding that yes, the forest is being cut down, but there are better ways to do it. I hope people start to look for that FSC symbol, not just on guitars, but on products like tissue paper and copy paper, and that people can make a purchasing decision based on that. We can do it together.

MMR: What are your hopes for the movie?

MT: I would love people to come away knowing about an issue they were likely completely unaware of before seeing it, thinking about American guitars differently, and appreciating the beauty of what goes into making them.

Then maybe they will consider their own buying habits a bit. Bob [Taylor] is quoted as talking about wood being available that is just as wonderfully sounding, but won’t necessarily be absolutely perfect looking. Chris [Martin] said it beautifully when he said guitars made from tone woods at some point will be like, “people having freckles on their face.”



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