- An excellent undercover documentary investigating the world of illegal logging and international timber trafficking
"It’s something of a tragedy that we’re forced to become accomplices to such a serious crime … Just because we want to buy wooden flooring." The plundering of natural resources which is destabilising the planet and posing a long-term threat to its balance (at an ever-increasing rate), all in the name of a profit, is an open secret. But it’s nonetheless necessary to prove these acts are taking place in order to denounce them to maximum effect and to try to bring the practice to an end (given that dogged denial is, unfortunately, common currency). Irrefutable evidence is required in order to turn a blinding spotlight on the perpetrators.
Such is the vocation of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an American NGO based in Washington whose exceptional undercover investigative work, carried out by journalists and activists from various countries, acts as the guiding thread throughout the documentary Wood [+see also:
film profile], by Michaela Kirst, Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan and Ebba Sinzinger. The film is screening at the 12th Les Arcs Film Festival (its Digital Off-Piste edition) ahead of its French release on 24 February by Jour2Fête, rounding off a superb tour of the 2020 festival circuit which kicked off at CPH:DOX and notably involved the likes of Toronto’s Hot Docs, the Viennale, Sarajevo and the Zurich Film Festival.
In the deepest depths of the taiga forest in Far Eastern Russia, not far from the Amur River, a chainsaw shatters the peace of the natural surrounds. Director of the EIA Alexander von Bismarck tracks illegal oak tree loggers along bumpy roads. These trees are then ferried off to the Chinese border where the investigator passes himself off as a buyer (equipped with a hidden microphone and camera) in order to identify those active in the chain. His efforts will allow him to expose the outfit Lumber Liquidators - a chain of shops specialising in wooden flooring – to the media grilling that comes with a federal investigation in the US.
In Romania, a country which is home to one of the biggest forests in Europe and where an area the size of Bucharest is deforested every year — half of which through illegal logging — it’s the mighty Austrian group Holzindustrie Schweighofer who find themselves publicly needled at the close of a passionate and risky investigation (involving scouting, tailing, an undercover stint as a vendor this time, catching damning acts on camera, meetings with the authorities, a press conference, etc.) which reveals the systemic drivers of a crime fuelled by corruption.
Changing his appearance (a beard, new haircut and colour, etc.) and his identity according to the undercover mission involved, Alexander is supported by local intermediaries, such as biologist Gabriel Paun, and Bogdan Micu who is putting the finishing touches to a mobile phone app which allows the user to verify (via a bar code) the legality of every link in the wood supply chain. It’s a very simplistic piece of tech which our "heroes" will also try to promote amongst the indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon, an area where wood trafficking is taking on brutal proportions and where exploitation of extreme poverty is a commonplace event.
Meticulously retracing the many steps involved in these long-term, undercover investigations, with a view to turning the spotlight on vampires of capitalism, Wood pays wonderful tribute to the intelligence and audacity of these standard-bearers for a healthier planet. Despite facing challenges of monumental proportions (Adriana-Doina Pana, the Romanian Minister for Water and Forests, who was the driving force behind several changes in the law, suffered mercury poisoning and the Romanian government halted most of the actions that had been initiated in support of Bogdan’s app), they continue to move their pieces across the board. Eventually, the Environmental Investigation Agency’s findings lead to arrests on Schweighofer’s Romanian sites for collusion with the forest mafia; the American group Lamber Liquidators, meanwhile, plead guilty and are fined $13m, but, fundamentally, they lose $2b in market value.
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