Yeah, I didn’t like this.
I didn’t like how it was filmed more than anything else. It smacks heavily of white saviour. The film follows Alexander von Bismark of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an America activist who works to expose illegal logging practices. I think it was a mistake to make him the film’s main character, because there are a lot of local partners, who are the ones with the local expertise and who are taking the biggest risks, whose stories don’t need told through the cipher of explaining it to a visiting white guy.
The film has 3 stories running through the course of the film. The first is the exposure of Lumber Liquidators, a US company, as being complicit in illegal logging in Russia. The second is the exposure of Holzindustrie Schweighofer, an Austrian company, as being complicit in illegal logging in Romania. The third is of them trying to help indigenous Peruvians by providing them with an app to track illegal loggers. In my opinion, it would have better to pick one of these stories and stick with it. Switching between the 3 makes Alexander look like a helicopter activist, dropping into places to make a big splash, then fucking off when the death threats come rolling in. It would also mean that we could spend more time with the local activists and journalists when Alexander goes, and get a fuller picture of the situation.
Also, a lot of the white saviour vibes comes purely from filmmaking choices. The opening scenes are in Russia, and instead of subtitling the local Russian guides, it instead has Alexander relay what the translator has told him they’ve said to the camera. This is one of my biggest pet peeves of documentary filmmaking and is just so disrespectful, as well as really bringing to the fore the presumption that a white English-speaking audience would rather hear information from a white English speaker.
Although Alexander also speaks German, a lot of the time he has to work through a local translator. Or he relies on local people speaking to him in struggling English. You get a whole different story when speak to someone in their own language than when you force their story through the pinhole of an unfamiliar tongue. Again, all the priority is on the presumed white, English-speaking listener, and the actual people affected by these issues are being made to serve the observer/camera. It’s not a good dynamic.
Finally is just the way Alexander and other activists conduct themselves. At one point when visiting indigenous people in Peru and hearing their stories of intimidation and violence, Alexander discusses it with another activist who’s lying reclining in a hammock. The guy’s laid out in this hammock, like, “What do think? They’ll be killed when we go?” And it’s like mate, take this shit seriously, don’t lie there in a motherfucking hammock like your gap year is going rad.
Another part of it might just be a cultural thing. Americans have the optimism of puppies. Being born in Scotland, I don’t, and find it incredibly irritating. It feels like listening to a child explain to you that all your problems can be fixed with a smile. So when Alexander and Co start touting this new app system as being able to end illegal logging, you just kinda die inside. Like, criminals already forge illegal certificates, why do you think a QR code is going to be any different?
And watching them cack-handedly launch it to a village of indigenous people is just cringeworthy. There is a real racial tone-deafness to this film. Dropping this white saviour figure down into a place where he doesn’t speak the language and having him tell indigenous folks that a new app will solve their problems. There’s tons of moments like that, like when a Black guy at the EIA office asks about how to keep safe during undercover investigations, and Alexander starts explaining about just using common sense, and how that’s always worked for him. Like, could someone please acknowledge the relative differences in risk here?
I’d love to bring this review to a conclusion about how, I didn’t enjoy the filmmaking choices, but overall, Wood shows the EIA doing good work. But I don’t feel I can even go that far. As we go to credits at the end, info flashes up saying the investigation into Lumber Liquidators is ongoing (being kicked into the long grass), that Romania passed legislation that would stop the miracle app from working (total loss), and that several Romanian journalist-activists had been killed following the high-profile attention. That sounds like the achievement of nothing, nothing, and the actual loss of human life.
My takeaway from Wood is you really need to scrutinise your praxis, whether you’re an activist, a journalist, or a filmmaker.