Thirty-five years ago, Texaco began drilling for oil in the Ecuadorean Amazon, polluting the land and water with chemical waste and sickening the indigenous people. A class action was filed in 1993, but 17 years later, the litigation is dragging on between the plaintiffs and Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2001, with no end in sight. The case is the basis of Crude, which depicts the all too tragic damage as it chronicles the complex legal fight and focuses on heroes (lawyers Pablo Fajardo and Steven Donziger), victims (a cancer-stricken mother and daughter), and the Chevron reps who are given plenty of rope with which to hang themselves.

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (My Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) went to Ecuador in the fall of 2005 at the urging of plaintiff lawyer Donizger. “I got dragged into it kicking and screaming, but I was shocked to see this environment, how badly it had been assaulted, and there was no coverage of it,” he says. “I felt like the universe had tapped me on the shoulder. Somebody had to tell this story.”

Although Berlinger had concerns and reservations, some structural, some financial -- and ended up footing the bill for the first of the three-and-a-half years he worked on it, “I couldn’t turn my back on these people.” He endured jungle heat, biting chiggers, the threats of malaria and kidnapping or worse -- FARC revolutionaries and drug runners operated nearby. “I had a real sense of purpose despite the danger,” he tells MNN.

Flying beneath the radar without announcing his nationality or purpose, Berlinger blended in with local media crews. “It was very guerilla filmmaking. I was amazed at the kind of things I was able to capture.” He ended up with 600 hours of footage, edited with the help of Spanish-fluent Alyse Spiegel.

Structurally, he eschewed narration and avoided lecturing, endeavoring to present both sides of the issue. “I have faith that the audience will reach the right conclusion and that the truth rises to the top.” Berlinger welcomed some unexpected turns that became part of the film, such as when Vanity Fair wrote about the crisis, which led to the involvement of Trudie Styler and her husband Sting, and the increased attention and accolades bestowed upon Fajardo including a CNN Hero Award and Goldman Environmental Prize.

Still, Berlinger is realistic about the reach of his film. “As much as the handful of people who are going to see this film are going to be outraged, it is only a little documentary, not a film that will play in the multiplex and do $100 million at the box office, unfortunately. The truth of the matter is a film like The Cove will probably outgross this movie because I think people care more about dolphins getting beaten over the head than indigenous people having a cultural genocide.”

He hopes to increase attention via Internet outreach and ancillary markets following the theatrical run: an April DVD release and late 2010/early 2011 airing on the Sundance Channel. Berlinger directs/executive produces Iconoclasts for the channel, and his films, including Crude, have been showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, “the seal of approval” for independent documentaries.

While Berlinger notes that Chevron has the deep pockets, PR spinmeisters, and legal wherewithal to wage a war of attrition for years, he suspects that the company is “getting more nervous as the reviews come out. There are some obviously Chevron-sponsored bloggers discrediting me and the film, which they have not even seen. One called it ‘a Stalinesque piece of propaganda produced by the plaintiffs’,” he quotes, understandably incensed.

Whether or not Chevron has a legal leg to stand on, “the moral responsibility lay at their door,” Berlinger believes. “You just don’t go where people have lived in harmony with nature and just ruin their environment. White people have treated indigenous people abysmally for centuries. We disconnect them from nature, take away their means of sustenance. We herd them into these western lifestyles and we then abandon them because we don’t give them the economic resources to have that lifestyle, the healthcare infrastructure. There is depression, alcoholism, diseases they’ve never heard of and an eradication of this rich nature-based culture,” he says, remembering watching a family eating canned tuna next to a polluted river they can no longer fish. “We have the continuation of this prejudicial colonial imperialistic manifest destiny, in pursuit of the dollar at the cost of the environment. It’s tragic.”

Barrels of fresh water -- secured by Trudie Styler -- are a temporary “band-aid” that won’t fix the problem, Berlinger points out. Unless the case is settled out of court, he doesn’t think it will be resolved soon. “If it’s taken 17 years to get to this point it’s going to take another 17 years, because Chevron has promised a lifetime of litigation,” he reveals. He’s similarly pessimistic about the future of humanity “on its present course. I just think we don’t get it,” he says, “... hyperaware that we as a society need to make changes.”

Toward that end, he’s driven a hybrid for years but as a result of Crude has become a much more discerning consumer, much more attuned to waste, and more aware “of the humanity and the interconnectedness of all people. That is something I teach my children now. I am not No Impact Man,” he emphasizes. “I fly to film festivals. I do live in a house heated by oil and drive a car. But I would not buy Chevron gas. Rampant consumerism and unbridled profit making is what produced the disaster in the Amazon and sadly, it is not the only place in the world where this is going on. So I try not to be an avaricious consumer and I’m aware of where my products are coming from.”

Berlinger hopes that audiences will be similarly influenced, “and have their eyes opened the way I had my eyes opened that we need to treat indigenous people with dignity and respect. We are not only deforesting the rain forest and losing species, we are also losing this rich cultural heritage of people who live in harmony with nature. To me, the extractive industries going into these regions and treating the local populations and the local environment with utter disregard is morally bankrupt, regardless of who wins the lawsuit,” he declares. “The right of people to live in harmony with nature should not be disrupted by a profit driven company.”

Crude opens in New York Sept. 9, Los Angeles on Sept. 18, and to a wider audience the following week.

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'Crude' awakening
Joe Berlinger’s David vs. Goliath documentary is a cautionary tale we can’t ignore.