Hot Docs Review: ‘Wood’

Environmental activism meets international espionage in docu-thriller

5 mins read

(Austria/Germany/Romania, 95 min.)
Dir. Monica Lãzurean-Gorgan, Michaela Kirst, Ebba Sinzinger
Program: World Showcase

James Bond might be on hiatus until November, but cinephiles hankering for a spy game will appreciate Wood. The film is an eye-opening combination of investigative journalism and international espionage. This environmental docu-thriller sees some bold activists put themselves on the line while saving the planet from greedy corporations and inspiring change.

Wood chronicles an ambitious years-in-the-making investigation in which activist Alexander von Bismarck is a fearless crusader. Through his work with the NGO Environmental Investigation Agency US (EIA), von Bismarck amasses an astonishing range of evidence about an illegal logging operation that spans borders and oceans. The investigation brings von Bismarck to Romania where concerned activists worry about mass clearcutting and illegal logging of national forests. Accompanying several locals, von Bismarck and the film crew infiltrate the operation. They wade into the forests and stumble upon a sketchy camp strewn up haphazardly among the trees, which von Bismarck’s pistol-brandishing guide insists is an illegal logging operation based on the nondescript but all-too-familiar set-up.

Diving headlong into the action like 007 and his ever-faithful allies, von Bismarck and company locate the trucks, track their progress, and trail their operations. The intense stakeouts involve several heated altercations between the protagonists and the truckers, while the Romanian police take a laissez-faire attitude even when von Bismarck’s team delivers a rig full of logs pilfered from the protected national park. Using some nifty tracer apps that allow the team to input a truck’s license plate and determine its legitimacy, the investigation uses an array of tools that might make Q envious as the activists use technology to aid them in their race against time.

Although the story is five years old and has inspired some substantial changes since The Guardian reported on it in 2015, directors Monica Lãzurean-Gorgan, Michaela Kirst, Ebba Sinzinger imbue Wood with a sense of urgency while chronicling the events that led to the exposé’s publication. They follow von Bismarck around the world as he traces illegal Romanian wood in American discount retailers and as he identifies key players in the operation, which eventually leads to the Austrian corporation Holzindustrie Schweighofer.

The company is supposedly a stalwart in the industry, but the film collects persuasive evidence that the corporation is simply one among many that feeds on the world’s natural riches with no concerns for sustainability. The film accompanies von Bismarck as he mounts a case against Holzindustrie Schweighofer by assuming an alias and going undercover, posing as an American entrepreneur who wants to import high volumes of lumber. Using some hidden cameras, fake business cards, and smooth talk, von Bismarck gets top-level people in the operation bragging about their activities on tape, offering bonuses for high volume sales while acknowledging that there is no limit to their ability to plunder the Romanian woods until they’re gone. One intermediary even admits that the illegal wood smuggling is basically a hobby for Schweighofer’s top people.

Wood increases its scope by adding a storyline in which von Bismarck and the EIA investigate another case in Peru. The Peruvian sequences see von Bismarck meet with members of the Indigenous community and an extensive think-tank of experts and allies as they confront the extractive nature of the resources industry. These scenes don’t require the same covert risk-taking, hidden cameras, and documentary espionage. The EIA investigation, at least as it appears in the film, unfurls through community conversations and field tours with large groups. This study admittedly leaves the film somewhat imbalanced as it receives far less screen-time and isn’t nearly as engaging cinematically simply due to the nature of the inquiry. (A 75-minute film about the Romanian case alone would suffice.) However, the dual storyline illustrates how Holzindustrie Schweighofer’s greed is simply one act of environmental colonialism among many. Wood is a compelling exposé about the wonders of the world being uprooted before our eyes.

Wood screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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