«Biological systems and man-made biotopes»
Romania is a country with exceptionally extensive reserves of ancient forests. Within just a few years these irreplaceable resources were ruthlessly decimated, without the political establishment mounting any opposition. And Romania isn't an isolated case. The fact that the profiteers are often companies based in the EU only aggravates the situation even further. Motivated by their very differing personal relationships to the topos of forests, three women from three countries – the filmmakers and producers Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan, Ebba Sinzinger and Michaela Kirst – came together to join undercover activists on an investigative adventure lasting many years. WOOD, filmed openly in some parts and with a hidden camera in others, shows in snapshots the brutal business of illegal logging, clearly indicating the worldwide dimension of this issue.
All three of you are producers and directors, in Germany, Romania and Austria. How did WOOD develop into a joint project?
EBBA SINZINGER: Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan approached us with the idea of making a film about an Austrian logging company that is very active in Romania. In the village where her parents lived so many trees have been cut down that an entire hillside had slipped, burying a number of houses. At that point I had just co-produced a different film with Michaela Kirst.
MICHAELA KIRST: And I had also just finished making a TV documentary about illegal logging, working together with Alexander von Bismarck. He functions as a "forest spy", working on a political level and trying to initiate worldwide changes in the law to combat major logging activity. This involves getting into dangerous situations on a regular basis, to establish both the origin and destination of the timber. I always felt that material was more appropriate for the cinema than television.
EBBA SINZINGER: As well as that, in Romania it's good to have a perspective from outside the country in order to strengthen the reputation of Romanian environmental activists. They've been fighting illegal logging in the country for a very long time without being able to get much of an audience.
MONICA LĂZUREAN-GORGAN: Romania used to have vast forest areas. In recent years wood has been cut down on a massive, industrial scale. The Romanian legislation is not very restrictive. Given the situation in my country with regard to illegal logging I couldn’t just stand by and watch it happen. It needed to be exposed on an international level, particularly since it was so cheap and easy for western companies to invest and grab our natural resources. Many small Romanian wood processing companies went out of business because they couldn’t compete with the powerful western companies.
EBBA SINZINGER: For us, from an Austrian perspective, it was also interesting that Schweighofer was an Austrian company which was busy plundering the post-communist “Wild East” and making a lot of money. It's not the only Austrian firm that does good business there. Egger and Kronospan are also among the major players in that country.
MICHAELA KIRST: Illegal logging goes on all around the world. In my first film I focused on wood from Madagascar which comes through Hamburg on the way to the USA. When this illegal trade happens within the European Union, it takes on another dimension – especially because in Romania we’re talking about the last remaining primeval forest in temperate climatic zones. It's a very special kind of forest that can't just be replanted.
Could you describe your protagonist and main activist, Alexander von Bismarck, in more detail?
MICHAELA KIRST: Alexander von Bismarck runs the Washington office of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). His organization is dedicated to a variety of environmental issues: wood is one of the most important. Alexander himself grew up between Germany and America: his father is a descendant of the German chancellor Bismarck, while his mother is an American writer. At some point they separated, so Alexander grew up in both countries. He's also a former Marine so in that sense he is a very German and a very American character. He studied biology at Harvard and worked at Lake Victoria in Tanzania, for example. He's just as interested in biological systems as in man-made biotopes.
What was your approach during the development phase of the project, in formal terms, to the investigative approach?
EBBA SINZINGER: The formal approach was very strongly influenced by the protagonist’s method of working. It wouldn't have been possible to film in any other way.
MICHAELA KIRST: On the one hand there is a fundamental difficulty with undercover material, because it can't be controlled, but on the other hand that way you get material that you would never be able to obtain otherwise. I'm thinking about the business trip to China at the beginning of the film: it conveys a very powerful message, showing how our commercial world functions, and normally it's not visible.
In terms of directing the film, that must have meant there was always an overlap between the concept and the undercover strategy?
MICHAELA KIRST: It meant constantly adjusting to the undercover work. After all, the people involved don't know themselves which direction things are heading. And it's not until the elements of the investigative research begin to come together that the next undercover mission can be planned.
EBBA SINZINGER: It meant that for a block of seven days shooting, one day c qould begin with a couple of conversations – and only then does it emerge that you’re in the wrong place. So that means 7 hours driving along a highway to the other end of Romania, everybody’s exhausted, but you have to set up for a new shooting session. They were very long days of filming, because you couldn't check out the locations in advance. It always felt as though you were chasing your tail. We are immensely grateful to our camera people for going along with it all.
At the beginning did you schedule filming in several locations to find out where something of interest for the film would develop?
EBBA SINZINGER: We had a very exact structural principle about that, which was clear from the beginning, also because we were aware that the stories in the different places wouldn't run parallel and concurrently. We wanted one story that was approaching its conclusion: that's why we start off with the episode set in Siberia and China. We have Romania as the core story, where we would spend a long time observing the situation, and we also had a story that was just starting out, which was the background to the sequences in Peru.
How much flexibility did the concept require in terms of direction and production?
EBBA SINZINGER: It was a constant process of reacting and adapting. You couldn't perform any research in advance, because we didn't want to draw unwelcome attention to ourselves. Quite understandably, the EIA wanted to make first contact with the various people we interviewed, so we couldn't do any preparatory work at all. In Romania Monica was in contact with a lot of journalists, because Alexander always works with people on site who provide indispensable background research. That meant we could guide to a certain extent what would actually happen in a concrete situation. And after all, a lot of the research wouldn’t make good film material because a great deal of it is boring paperwork and analysis.
MICHAELA KIRST: Sometimes you had to wait for a phone call without knowing when it would come. And the political situation in the country involved had to be such that we could film with a certain amount of security. For example, it didn't necessarily have to be Peru. And you can't film political meetings. It required a huge amount of caution, trust and sensitivity.
How long did you work on this project?
EBBA SINZINGER: Seven years all together. First of all we had to get Alexander von Bismarck interested in the project, and persuade him that Romania would be the right place for his work. Naturally he's not in a position to decide single-handedly to rush off to Romania just like that. His organization is dependent on funding.
MICHAELA KIRST: In the USA there is no state financing for NGOs, so everyone is reliant on private donations. Consequently his overseas missions have to have an extremely sound foundation.
In these tricky filming situations, what did the camera-work itself involve?
EBBA SINZINGER: That depended a lot on the situation itself. It might involve filming in a hotel lobby, where you could show yourself quite openly. In Peru we didn't do any undercover filming at all, and even in Romania we filmed a great deal quite openly. If you go into the forest the camera has to be a bit smaller, so you could always pass as a birdwatcher. In general we could also be present as directors. In contrast, in an undercover situation you couldn't even have a cameraman there, apart from Attila Boa, who even filmed with a camera in the Chinese factory.
MICHAELA KIRST: In that case we had to give him a mission, and he posed as a designer. Attila is a particularly cool character. Not every cameraman would have been prepared to do that.
How did you handle the aspect of risk during the shooting?
MICHAELA KIRST: We were first faced with that question in Madagascar, and I have to say I trusted Alexander von Bismarck. If he said it was OK, I trusted him, even though of course there was still some risk involved. I got the impression from him that he knew how far he could go and when it was better to back off. He guided us in that way.
MONICA LĂZUREAN-GORGAN: In Romania the forests didn’t represent too much danger for us. It’s extremely rare in Romania that foreigners get into trouble. They usually go for their own people, not for journalists or researchers. Do you know what happened to Mihali, the older guy you see in the film? A month after we filmed him, he was also interviewed by a TV crew. Another month later he was beaten up downtown in the city of Borṣa and left with very serious injuries. The fact that he was seen with a TV journalist was the cause of this assault.
Did you feel an increasing responsibility towards the people who were prepared to talk to you?
MICHAELA KIRST: The people who talked to us were determined to talk, because they really wanted something to change. They were waiting for an opportunity to inform people about what was going on.
MONICA LĂZUREAN-GORGAN: I never had to convince any Romanian to take us there. I would only approach people who were very open to talking. Mihali was almost in tears when he showed us the almost bare land where there used to be a forest.
Did any company try to obstruct your work in Romania?
EBBA SINZINGER: Our strategy was to use an innocuous title that didn’t refer to logging and the timber industry, namely Green Green Green. We didn’t draw any attention to ourselves, so no one could find any concrete information on the internet about our project.
MICHAELA KIRST: When you are working on an investigative project, one of the key rules is to keep it very low profile for as long as possible. We drafted all the material on the project pretty vaguely, avoiding certain terms and company names, and above all any online publishing. I remember that on the occasion of a pitch we asked for a total social media lock-down, so that nobody was allowed to film or record us.
You’re three producers working in three different European cities. How did you manage to handle the project as a team?
MICHAELA KIRST: The way of working together very much depended on the particular situation and on what made sense at that particular moment. During preparation our essential tool was undoubtedly Skype. When it came to shooting, sometimes all three of us would be there, sometimes not.
MONICA LĂZUREAN-GORGAN: Given what was happening in Romania in terms of illegal logging, I couldn’t just stand by and watch what was going on. I threw myself into reading and research, and I supported Alexander in his work by helping him to establish reliable contacts among NGOs and journalists. EIA is still working in Romania, even though the shooting for our film is completed. Alexander von Bismarck’s organization did an incredible job for Romania, because they pursued a very clear strategy; Romanian activists had little experience of that. Before my very eyes changes happened, thanks to Alexander’s work. Basically we have secured a change in the legal situation. As for the next step: it depends on the current political situation whether it’s actually applied. We had governments that respected the law, others that restricted the forest inspectors in their use of apps that provide information about the origin of the wood transported by truck. The last government almost eliminated the app. The app also made it possible to compare a picture of a forest with the current situation and see immediately how much logging had been carried out and when. Suddenly you could only trace back for two months instead of two years, and finally it was reduced to three days. That’s a problem due to the instability of the political scene in Romania. Still, activists are now more aware of incalculable situations like that. Bogdan, one of the activists you can see in our film, offered to act as a consultant to the current Minister of the Environment and was accepted.
What are your hopes about what this film can achieve when it is released?
MONICA LĂZUREAN-GORGAN: Debate. At best, a film can provoke some very small changes. In my view, that’s already enough. If there is debate that raises awareness, we have achieved our goal.
EBBA SINZINGER: This film also proves that consistent commitment leads to success. With this particular film we’ve already achieved a lot just by shooting the film. One of the first consequences was that Schweighofer lost his Green Seal, the FSC certificate that is valid worldwide and indispensable for green label marketing. Then his premises were raided by the police on suspicion of involvement in organized crime. Now that the film is finished, we have a product that we can use to prompt discussion and to encourage other activists not to lose hope. The biggest changes happened during the shooting without the public awareness that a film was about to be made.
MICHAELA KIRST: Fridays for Future is a movement that has provoked a huge wave of protest in Germany. However, what happened in the course of our film project was more than protest; it shows what you can do in order to achieve change. It encourages people to go beyond protest. This might be dangerous, but we’ve got the evidence that things can change.
Did this experience change your own perception of your profession? Has it changed your way of selecting subjects, your way of approaching projects?
MONICA LĂZUREAN-GORGAN: If you produce documentaries you always place great emphasis on the subject and its social impact.
EBBA SINZINGER: I‘m not a Greenpeace activist but a filmmaker, and as such I try to participate in social phenomena by any means possible. As a filmmaker and film producer you can be political in very different ways: a film may tackle political or environmental issues, or it may simply show ways of life. But even in the most innocuous situations, my way of experiencing things helps shape the scenes and brings a political perspective to the film.
Interview: Karin Schiefer, February 2020
Translation: Charles Osborne