When the documentary "Crude" hit theaters last year, MNN journalist Gerri Miller hailed the film as an epic "David vs. Goliath cautionary tale". Director Joe Berlinger spent years in Ecuador chronicling the pollution of the Amazon rainforests and the native people suing Texaco (now owned by Chevron), saying the operations of the oil fields at Lago Agrio contaminated their water.
Chevron, understandably, was less than thrilled that the damaging documentary was released in the midst of a massive lawsuit that they've been trying to have dismissed. In a new twist, however, the oil giant appears to have a secret new weapon to assist them in succeeding with that dismissal: the film footage itself.
A Manhattan judge on Thursday ruled that Chevron could subpoena more than 600 hours of unedited footage from Crude to help in its case. Director Berlinger's lawyers argued that his footage was protected by his privilege as an investigative journalist, but in a stunning precedent for documentary filmmaking, the judge disagreed.
“Review of Berlinger’s outtakes will contribute to the goal of seeing not only that justice is done, but that it appears to be done," the judge wrote.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore said such a ruling could have "dire consequences" for the industry and greatly urged Berlinger to resist the subpoena if possible.
“If this isn’t overturned, it would make a lot of documentary filmmakers afraid,” Mr. Moore said in an interview with the NY Times. “People are going to have to start getting rid of all their extra footage now, right?”
“I’ve never had to deal with any corporation suing me to find out how I gather this information,” he added. “Obviously the ramifications of this go far beyond documentary films, if corporations are allowed to pry into a reporter’s notebook or into a television station’s newsroom.”
Lawyers for Mr. Berlinger have said that they will ask Judge Kaplan to stay the subpoena while they file an appeal. Needless to say, we'll be watching this one closely to see what impact, if any, such a ruling will have on the Chevron case and beyond.