REVIEW | WOOD: GOING UNDERCOVER TO UNCOVER GLOBAL FOREST CRIME

George Iordăchescu: New investigative documentary WOOD provides important context to the debate on global illegal logging. But in its quest for a solution, it overlooks more nuanced social and political dimensions.

George Iordăchescu reviews WOOD (2020, Austria-Germany-Romania, 95 mins)

Despite being the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide, timber trafficking remains poorly understood by the general public and challenging at a governmental level. WOOD is a feature-length documentary that aims to highlight the global ramifications of illegal logging whilst exposing the organised criminal networks involved in this illicit trade.

The Austrian-German-Romanian production premiered in the *F:ACT Award section of the CPH:DOX Festival in mid-March and had its first physical festival premiere some days ago at the Transylvania  International Film Festival. The narrative of WOOD is developed around investigative journalist Alexander von Bismarck, Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), who travels the world to expose illegality in the global timber trade. From Peru to the EIA offices in Washington DC, the Russian Far East, China and Romania, von Bismarck encounters truck drivers, CEOs, indigenous leaders and local activists; all whilst dyeing his hair, changing his identity and sporting a suitcase packed with hidden cameras and microphones.

Image: Alexander von Bismarck in a still from the film WOOD (2020).  Credit: https://www.wood.film/

Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan – the film’s Romanian co- director alongside Michaela Kirst and Ebba Sinzinger – has been working on the story for almost a decade. The decision to collaborate with the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Investigation Agency changed the landscape of environmental activism in Romania. In 2015, materials published by EIA sparked mass protests and later contributed to the withdrawal of an FSC certification from the biggest timber processing company in Romania. Although only recently premiered, the documentary has shaped the way in which we view Romania as a source of illegally logged timber both inside and beyond the EU.  

The transboundary dimension of timber trafficking is a recurrent theme of the documentary, which shows how consumers across the globe unwittingly end up buying products sourced from protected areas. While present at official meetings in Vienna, von Bismarck is confident that the European market can pressure governments, such as that of Romania, to better tackle the problem. Studies in green criminology have shown that the illegal logging and timber trade not only represents a criminal violation of law of global dimensions, but a serious harm to the environment and the people reliant upon it.

WOOD also exposes the different levels of violence related to forest crime. It shows armed rangers in the Russian Far East, tells the story of an activist being threatened and graphically captures images of another being assaulted at the entrance of a timber processing plant. 

Alongside the globalised and violent dimensions of illegal logging, technology is a third central theme. Within the documentary, it is presented as a solution to tackle the crisis when IT developer, Bogdan Micu, meets von Bismarck and accompanies him to Peru to help the Chamicuro people oppose the plunder of a logging company by presenting them with different technologies for timber traceability. In WOOD, technology is fetishized and portrayed as a long term cure for illegal logging across geographies by making the global timber industry more sustainable and competitive: ‘the system heals the industry’ tells Micu to the representatives of Chamicuro during a meeting (42:24). However, the use of technology in tackling illegal logging is overstated as well as being problematic in its own right; issues which are not addressed in the documentary. 

Image: the official promotional poster for WOOD (2020). Credit: https://www.wood.film/

WOOD is not a revelation. It does not bring to international attention issues previously unheard or unseen, as the spectacle of global illegal logging has already made headlines in most major news outlets. In countries like Romania, forest crime is a divisive topic and is already highly mobilised in electoral campaigns and by populist politicians. 

The real merit of WOOD is that it brings to the fore the key investigations, moments and actors that have framed the issue of illegal logging as a global problem that requires an urgent solution. In this respect, the documentary is more than simply an investigative report. It helps to better situate social movements, as the original investigation featured in the documentary triggered several mass protests and subsequent changes in the legal framework that governs forestry and the timber processing industry. It also helps researchers and activists involved with the topic to make connections and build a coherent picture of the sometimes obscure world of timber trafficking.  

Although choosing a charismatic white western man – and former US Marine – was a useful technique for telling a story about illegal logging, it is also WOOD’s undoing. Through the eyes and deeds of von Bismarck, illegal logging is constructed as an uncomplicated story of corruption involving influential politicians and heads of monopolistic companies. In an early scene, von Bismarck gets in a taxi at Bucharest Airport and whilst passing an IKEA store asks the driver: ‘What about forests? Do you have some forests? The driver replies ‘Yes we have. But our government is cutting it down.’ Von Bismarck: ‘You think the government is cutting it down?’ and then the driver ‘Yes. Because it is corrupt. These guys stole everything from our country.’

Image: a still from the film WOOD (2020).  Credit: https://www.wood.film/

The documentary is thus oblivious to the complex structural dimensions of illegal logging; issues such as property regimes and changing forestry traditions, social and environmental injustices, political instability translated into confusing legal frameworks, reduced law enforcement capacity and the local historical legacies of patron-client relations developed during post-socialist transformations. 

Although marginal, the emphasis on the importance of consumer demand in the functioning of timber trafficking is a great merit of the documentary. ‘All of us are forced in a way to become complicit in a really serious crime (…) the extinction of the biggest cat on earth’ ponders von Bismarck in reference to logging in the habitat of the endangered Siberian tiger (15:11).

Ostensibly, WOOD is a documentary about uncovering the truth about illegal logging, finding the culprits and exposing them to the world.  But in reality, the documentary is highly activist, a call to arms to fight what the media and politicians ceaselessly describe as the ‘timber mafia’ and its global ramifications. Reflecting on the legacy of WOOD, one of the characters declares that her power consists in telling a story, not making the problem disappear. 

Consciously or not, the documentary premiered in 2020, a year where new technological platforms promoted by the Romanian government will foster an unprecedented public involvement in tackling illegal logging. And considering the high pressure the European Commission is exerting on member states to end this problem, the game is on.