by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
Crude: The Real Price of Oil is outright sickening. Huge crude oil pits dot the landscape, natural waterways are so polluted that drinking the water causes cancer, and Ecuador’s indigenous communities’ entire way of life is on the brink of destruction. Responsibility for this pollution is the core of a lawsuit filed against Texaco (now Chevron) in 1993. The case has yet to be resolved.
Berlinger has directed an engaging and fast-paced 105-minute film that is as much an environmental call to action as it is a moving appeal for real humanitarian change. The effects of oil drilling on 30,000 indigenous people are nothing short of horrific. But the dispute received little publicity until Berlinger began working on a documentary and Trudie Styler, along with husband Sting, became involved; Styler’s admirable activism is featured prominently in the film, and Sting’s music provides the soundtrack. The fact that it takes a certain level of celebrity focus for environmental and humanitarian injustices to grab the public’s attention does not go unnoted in the film.
When Berlinger was in San Francisco for Crude’s Bay Area theatrical release, we were able to sit down and discuss the film’s origins, his filmmaking style, and Chevron’s recent public relations attack discounting the documentary.
Listen to Jessica's interview with Joe Berlinger by clicking the play button below! - Ed.
What made you decide to make a documentary about the situation in Ecuador, specifically this environmental destruction?
To be honest with you, I feel like I got dragged into the film kicking and screaming. I didn’t set out to make the film, and that’s always the most amazing thing when these journeys actually turn into something. Basically Steven Donziger, the American consulting attorney, came to my office; we had a mutual friend. Steven was looking for a filmmaker, knocked on my door and started telling me about the case. And all of my filmmaker red flags started going off as to why I shouldn’t make a film.
First of all, he was talking about a convoluted, hard to understand, 13-year history. And I, as a cinema verité filmmaker who likes to film things in the present tense as it unfolds, I kept thinking [that] stepping into something in the thirteenth year seems like I’ve missed the story. The original lawsuit was filed in ‘93. I did not know, nor did he frankly, that these judicial inspections were going to start during the period I was filming.The other red flag was I am not an agitprop-style filmmaker. There is a certain style of political documentary that has one single point of view and it bangs it over your head over and over again; that is not my style of filmmaking. My last film, which took place in the Bay Area, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, was obviously not a political film. But even the Paradise Lost films, which are serious social issue films, have a multiplicity of viewpoints in them. That’s kind of my style. So, I was concerned that this plaintiff’s lawyer was coming at me wanting a certain kind of film that was inconsistent with my style of filmmaking. That was a big red flag.
The other red flag was: how am I going to pay for a film like this? Who’s going to be interested in a subtitled film in a country that I had to go check a map after the meeting to make sure where Ecuador was? Was it in Central America, South America…This just did not seem like something I could raise money for.
With all those hesitations, I said to Steven, “I don’t think I’m the right guy.” But he was very persistent, and felt that if I would only go down and see the pollution I might have a change of heart. So I said, “As long as you understand that I have a lot of doubts that I can actually do what you’re looking for, I’ll take the trip with you.”
On the first day of the trip, I was absolutely dumbfounded at the level of pollution that was down there. I think one of the biggest failings of the film is that it’s two dimensional. It’s bad on film, but in real life I was shocked at the level of devastation. So, I started feeling my initial resistance kind of wearing down. Then on the second day of the trip, we went to an indigenous community, the Cofán people. We went by canoe, and as I got out of the canoe, I saw community members preparing a meal by the river using canned tuna fish. And that kind of just blew me away.
Here we were deep in the heart of the Amazon, rainforests with water-based people who have lived in harmony with nature for eons, unable to sustain themselves through their traditional means because there are no fish in the river. They’re eating canned tuna. Then you start talking to mothers who knowingly are giving their children poisoned water because there’s no alternative. There’s literally no fresh drinking water. I felt all my red flags start going down and my resistance wearing off…Not to sound like a cliché, [but] I looked in mirror and I just felt like how can I turn my back on this situation and be proud of who I am?I just was so embarrassed at what I saw, so heartbroken for the indigenous people down there and how they’ve been treated, I just felt like, okay, I’ve got to point a camera at this – and who knows where it’s going to go.
When the film begins three years ago, the legal case has been going on for 13 years. What is currently happening with the case? Is it going to go on for another 16 years?
The lawyers hate when I say this, but one of the themes of the film and one of the reasons I end the film the way I do…is that my observation, and one of the themes of the film, is that I think our legal structures as currently operated are inadequate for dealing with these large-scale environmental and humanitarian crises...Chevron has promised a lifetime of litigation. In fact, they’re now suing Ecuador to pull them into an international court so that this thing can be decided through international arbitration because they’re expecting a negative verdict.
My larger observation is that lawsuits are inadequate for dealing with these things because it will be three decades before there is any resolution to this case, which means three generations of people will have suffered before there’s a resolution. Who knows if the resolution will end in payment?
One thing that I was struck by is the incredible amount of money Chevron has spent fighting the case. Couldn’t they have just spent significantly less money, cleaned up the entire Amazon, thus negating a need for a case altogether? And possibly saved money?
Well, if I were Chevron I would say, “You know, if we allow ourselves to be drawn into that then we will be targets all over the world.” That would be Chevron’s point of view.
My point of view is they have spent multiple millions of dollars on the best lawyers, marketing experts, advertising agencies, spin meisters, lobbyists - you’d think some of that money could have been directed toward helping people. Again, a much smarter move would have been for Chevron to just have come out and said, “We don’t think we’re responsible, we don’t agree that we have any legal responsibility, but we did benefit from the procurement of oil from this region, we feel bad the people are in such dire need, so let us contribute at least to Sting and Trudie’s freshwater project.”
The only people who have brought any tangible benefits to these people is the million dollars or so Trudie and Sting have spent on the freshwater drinking project [as part of the Rainforest Foundation]. Why isn’t Chevron trying to help people with fresh drinking water? They will say they’re not responsible and why should they be held hostage, but I think from a humanitarian standpoint it would have been a lot smarter.
The criticism was fairly recent. There are some paid bloggers and people who won’t disclose whether or not they are taking money from Chevron who have attacked the film. To my knowledge, they have not seen the film.
I know that Chevron has attacked you and the film publicly, even though at the time they had probably not seen the film. Have they continued to criticize you and dismiss the film?
Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco acquired all of the Chevron employee email addresses. Today as we speak, Trudie Styler is sending a message to all Chevron employees saying, “Hey, we’re not on different sides of the table, we think you should see this film.” In this email there’s a coupon that allows Chevron employees to see the movie for free. That letter is being emailed to 6,000 Chevron employees.
I invited [media spokesman Kent Robertson] to Sundance to participate in the press conference. They declined that opportunity. I agreed to setup a screening for him and his Public Relations colleague in March in New York. Kent canceled at the last minute, but their Public Relations guy – Chris Gidez – actually came to the film alone alone because it was a private screening...Chris Gidez thought the film was very fair.
Then I didn’t hear anything from Chevron again until I said in early August, “The movie is coming out in theatrical release, I want you to be aware that the movie is opening in the Bay Area on the 25th of September and I’d love to have a screening for Chevron employees. I’d love to screen the film also for your senior management.” And it took [Kent] about three weeks to email me, which was ironically just a week before he made the comments discrediting the film without having seen it. He wrote to me in an email, “Sorry to took so long to get back to you...We see no meaningful value in doing a screening of your film. We’ll wait until it hits our local theaters.” So, “no meaningful value.”
Then a week later when the film got incredibly great reviews in New York, a lot of attention, and broke box office records for the weekend…there were some attacks on blogs. Actually, Kent’s comments about the film [being] “long on emotion and short on facts” came out before we did such strong business – they came out on the eve of the [film’s release] when the reviews were all extremely positive.
What is next for Crude, and for you as a filmmaker?
Crude has been a labor of love to make and a labor of love to release. So, I’m going from town to town, basically promoting the movie and making sure it’s properly received. We sell these t-shirts that all the profits go to buying water tanks for people. To me, it’s not just about the lawsuit; it’s bringing relief to people. So, we have used this film to raise a lot of money both through special screenings and through the sale of t-shirts. Crude is beginning its journey as it travels across the country.
I am going to go get some sleep for about a month, and then who knows what’s next?
- Audio by Jacob Winik. - Ed.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.