Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by filmmaker Joe Berlinger, director of Crude. For more information visit the Crude film website.
During the summer of 2005, a charismatic American environmental lawyer named Steven Donziger knocked on my Manhattan office door. He was running a $27 billion class-action lawsuit on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorean inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest and was looking for a filmmaker to tell his clients’ story.
Since I am not known as an environmental filmmaker — my last film, “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” was a warts-and-all portrait of a heavy metal band in crisis — I was a little surprised that Donziger had sought me out to me to make his pitch.
The story the lawyer told me was indeed shocking: From the mid-1960s until the early 1990s, Texaco (now Chevron) dumped 18 billion gallons of oil and toxic waste into the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, creating a 1,700-square-mile “cancer death zone” the size of Rhode Island. The plaintiffs he represented alleged that birth defects, leukemia, miscarriages and other ailments were plaguing the people of the region, and the Amazon itself — one of the few places on Earth to survive the last ice age — was gasping for breath under the strain of oil exploitation.
But, while it seemed like a heartbreaking situation that someone should document, I was skeptical that it could be a feature-length film that I should get involved in.
I explained to Donzinger that I believe the best way to serve the truth is to explore a situation from all sides without overtly revealing the filmmaker’s viewpoint, allowing each audience member to come up with his or her own conclusion about the events they are witnessing onscreen. This is the opposite approach of the standard environmental and human rights advocacy film in which a single point of view is clearly conveyed, often just preaching to the converted instead of winning people over through the active process of weighing the pros and cons. I was also (selfishly) concerned with who would pay for a subtitled documentary about indigenous rainforest dwellers in a faraway country that many Americans know nothing about. Since my first film “Brother’s Keeper,” I had vowed never to start a film unless there was a budget or a distribution outlet in place.
On my first trip to Ecuador, I was shocked by the foul petrochemical sludge and toxic water that, for decades, had been dumped into open pits or directly into the area’s rivers and streams, and was surprised at the scant press coverage this story had received in the U.S. I talked with people who were sick and dying from cancer and other maladies — some of the 30,000 settlers and indigenous people who are signed onto the lawsuit and who call themselves “los afectados” (the affected ones). I also met Pablo Fajardo, the remarkable 35-year-old lawyer who was once a poor manual laborer in the oil fields. Pablo still lives in relative poverty, but today, working with Donziger, he is the lead attorney in the largest oil-related environmental lawsuit on the planet.
Much of my previous work, such as Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, has sought to break down stereotypes and preconceived notions and probe beneath the surface of people and situations. In the real world, things aren’t black and white, and this is how I approached this story, as well. An indigenous Amazonian leader doesn’t just show up at a Chevron shareholders’ meeting and confront the CEO all by himself – he is coached by a Harvard-educated attorney. The Ecuadorean plaintiffs can’t spend fifteen years in court on their own – they need a high-powered Philadelphia law firm specializing in class action lawsuits to pay for the investigations that Ecuadorean law requires – and that law firm stands to profit from any judgment. The attorneys for both the oil company and the plaintiffs compete for media attention, but the spotlight on the case gets brighter when celebrity activists Trudie Styler and Sting come on board. Yet here too I hope the film topples the usual clichés, as Trudie proves herself to be anything but a token “rent-a-celeb,” delivering on a promise she makes to help ease the suffering of the people.
At the last moment, we were able to convince Chevron to participate in the film, which is a critical component of the balanced portrait we always hoped to create. It took nearly a year of negotiation, but in the eleventh hour, just as we were readying our rough cut to submit to the Sundance Film Festival, the company offered up two spokespeople to sit for interviews, elevating the film to a new level. And while some people may initially perceive the representatives from Chevron as simply being part of a “big bad oil company,” they come across as real human beings who make a number of very intriguing legal and scientific claims.
Despite these ambiguities, the film never loses sight of what has true value. In the midst of the messy, murky world of this case, there are still good guys to root for, and even a clear hero in Pablo Fajardo. Cool and calm in the jungle, surrounded by press and adversarial lawyers, Pablo is unwavering in his insistence that you cannot put a price tag on human life, clean air and water or a healthy planet, regardless of who is right or wrong in the lawsuit.
One of the themes of the film is that in a world in which the Exxon Valdez judgment took nearly two decades to appeal, it will be generations before this case is fully resolved. So while the lawyers argue and various parties jockey for position with the media, the indigenous people who have lived in harmony with nature on these lands for millennia continue to suffer. That’s why the last scene of the film shows a group of Cofán Indians heading down river to an uncertain future. At the end of the journey of the film, Crude comes back to where it started, bearing witness to the lives of these people and the once-rich land they live on, leaving us to think about why this story matters to us all.
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CRUDE opens in select cities beginning September 9th – 22nd at the IFC Center:
- Los Angeles: September 18th -24th
- San Francsco: September 25th -October 1st
- Washington, D.C.: October 23rd -29th
For a full list of cities and screening dates please visit the Crude website.