Wood

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.

Journey to Utopia

Yikes!

Ok. Well. My takeaway from that was probably not the one the director intended. Journey to Utopia is about a Norwegian family moving to live in a self-sustaining climate-neutral community in Denmark. I however felt like the story of the film was about a domineering and emotionally manipulative person who buys into what is clearly a scam, and moves her family to live in a cult-like environment. For me this film was just red flags, red flags, red flags.

It starts on the director’s family farm in Norway. The trees are green, the soft rolling hills, the carved wooden homes with grass growing on the roof. And then he announces they are moving to a utopian community. And I’m like, “Wait, so this isn’t it?” What more could you ask for than living on your family farm, nature’s splendour all around you?

Apparently not. This isn’t good enough for his wife, Ingeborg, who has unilaterally decided that their carbon footprint is too large, and has invested in a start-up, self-sustaining community. Red flags everywhere. The community is called Permatopia. A siren. And so far all that exists of it is an artist’s impression on the pamphlet. A klaxon, a def-con 1 sign, and in the background, cannons.

There are ways to be concerned about the climate crisis, and there are ways. If you listen to people actually affected by climate change, in movies like The Ants and the Grasshopper, or The Last Forest, there is an urgency yes, but not the frantic panic-stirring in the way Ingeborg talks. She sounds like someone in the Cold War convinced the nukes are going to drop any moment and is desperate to build a fallout shelter. These people, in my experience, tend to have recently been in touch with fallout shelter salesmen.

When the director, Erland, expresses doubts about moving to a community lifestyle radically different from their current one, one which is not yet built, and taking 3 children in tow, Ingeborg shuts him down by saying he’s too indecisive so she’s had to make the decision on her own. Which is a really good way of making yourself out to be the victim for totally domineering crucial choices about the family’s future. Red flags, Erland.

He is a director and she is an opera singer. They’re well-to-do middle-class. Ingeborg insists that, because they both travel by plane for work, they owe it to the planet to reduce their carbon footprint. But not in some general way, only in this specific way that she’s decided for all of them.

They pack up their life and move to Denmark, and don’t you know it? You’ll never guess! The self-sustaining community isn’t built yet. Shocker, I know. Bet you never saw that coming. Not from the first moment you heard the name Permatopia.

Now, here’s the good thing about growing up broke working class. There are almost no upsides, but one did occur to me watching this. When there is no money, you have to prioritise. And in this situation, what is your priority as a parent? Keeping a roof over your kids’ heads. So you would immediately move back to your old place, if you could, and demand your money back off the Permatopia folk, preferably through a lawyer if you can afford one, or through a big fella if you can’t.

They are in temporary accommodation in Denmark for TWO YEARS. I was amazed when I realised they still hadn’t sold the farm in Norway, that they could have gone home that whole time and saved 2 years of rent. That’s insane.

No, Ingeborg insists that Permatopia will be finished any day now. Despite a total lack of even beginning. And berates her husband for making out like this is only her dream, when he wants to live sustainability too. Which again, acts like the person making all the decisions is the victim, and that any suggestion of a solution which doesn’t buy into total devotion to the vision of this new cult lifestyle is cowardice and selfishness. Guilt and shame is Ingeborg consistent tool of silence. Every time they meet with another delay, or Erland dares to point out the emperor has no clothes, she reminds him of how comfortable they are, how many people have it much worse, and how they don’t deserve to feel miserable. Run mate, run.

So skip forward 2 years and it’s moving day. They pack up their life once again and drive up to their new home and … it’s a building site. There’s folk still drilling and banging away in the upstairs. Outside is diggers and overturned muck. They’re not in the door 5 minutes before they and their neighbours notice absolutely nothing’s been done right. The filler’s not set, there’s no ventilation in the roofs, there’s no power, no hot water, no light fillings, the floor’s uneven and drifting, the list goes on and on.

And so the second part of the nightmare begins. Erland, a bit of a introvert, finds the new community with its mandatory participation sessions, collective meals, and the panopticon design of the houses suffocating. He’s moved away from the home where his father lived and died, where his mother still is. He’s doing this all in a second language, Danish, which is progressing painfully slowly. And when he expresses his struggles to his wife, she immediately brings up refugees out of nowhere. LEAVE THIS WOMAN.

Watching Erland internalise everything his partner is saying is just painful to watch. He starts hiding behind his sofa for some privacy and talking to the camera about how anti-social he is, how it’s a selfish trait, how lazy he is for not wanting to spend more time on communal work than what is mandatorily required. He is indecisive because he doesn’t think this has been a good decision to move here, but he doesn’t want the earth to become uninhabitable for the next generation, and those are two perfectly equatable things, and the only two options.

The only hero in this is his sullen teenage daughter Aslaug. She manages to keep enough detachment from her parents’ toing and froing to actually make her own decisions about what she thinks of Permatopia. That must take some force of personality, given how her mother is determined to bend the family to her will over the course of several years. Aslaug thinks the whole thing has obviously been a disastrous scam, but has nonetheless turned out for the best, as their neighbours have really banded together to make the place fulfil their dreams. It hasn’t worked because it was the right decision. It’s worked because people co-operated together to make it work. And although she is an introvert like her father, she finds her own way to be in this new place, standing in the fields with her earpods in, singing to herself. Heavy identify pal.

So in conclusion, this film is barely about climate change, not really. It’s about social panic and projection of idealised self-image. It’s about middle-class project making. It’s about how old ideas and well-worn scams are taking hold in the new green economy. And it’s about a man who really needs to leave his wife, because she reads like an emotional abuser’s checklist.