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Produced by Maxine Trump and Josh Granger
Directed by Maxine Trump
DVD , color, 80 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
Ecology, Environmental Ethics, Green Movement, Music, Native Americans

Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 3/14/2014

An unlikely triple confluence of interests among guitar manufacturers, the aggressive environmental organization Greenpeace, and Native American prerogatives lies at the core of this riveting, important documentary – and in the end, there are no heroes or villains, only tragic human overreaching. The story starts with the guitar, whose soulful acoustic sound may embody one of the purest of musical experiences. To produce that sound, however, takes different varieties of wood that become rarer with each passing year – rosewood from Madagascar, mahogany from Brazil, ebony from Africa, and, in particular, for the guitar sounding board, Sitka spruce coming mainly from an ancient stretch in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. In the 1970’s the United States government settled some of the Native American land claims by setting up a corporation to provide dividends for Native shareholders. One such corporation, a private Native American trust, Sealaska, has been practicing so-called clear-cut lumbering – economically advantageous but ecologically devastating – in which entire swaths of land are permanently leveled. Most of the product is sold as pulp, veneer, and other construction materials to markets in Asia. A small sliver goes for guitars: among the trees randomly felled are three-hundred-year-old giants whose diameter is large enough to accommodate the sounding board. Thus, in short, without a sustainable forest management program in place, the Sitka spruce will in a very short period of time disappear.

Enter a representative of Greenpeace, the independent environmental organization concerned with saving the forest, who brings together CEO’s of the major guitar manufacturers – among the companies, Martin, Gibson, and Taylor – as leverage in negotiations to try to convince the Sealaska board that sustainable logging, with protection for rare old growth trees and with smaller clear-cuts, is an absolute necessity in everybody’s interest. Alas, by the film’s end, the problem is not resolved, the negotiations go nowhere – rather, as Yeats prophetically proclaimed, things sadly fall apart.

All the persons in the film have pertinent things to say. Perhaps most fascinating are the Native American board members, who insist they revere the land (though profits evidently come first). Other members of the Native community appear, shareholders, who believe not only is their culture being destroyed but the corporation provides little or no economic assistance to the larger poverty stricken tribal community. “We never see any money returned to this economy. It’s clearly a resource of extraction and liquidation.”

MusicWood, admirably directed by Maxine Trump, is a beautifully made film that interweaves images of the majesty of the Sitka forest; the lovely strains of acoustic guitars played by virtuosos such as Steve Earle, Yo La Tengo, Kaki King, the Antlers, Turin Brakes, and Serguis Gregory; and glimpses of the cultural life of the Native Haida tribe. Highly recommended.