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David Versus Goliath in the Amazon

Credit: First Run Pictures

Above: "Crude"

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger has made some well-respected documentaries including “Metallica” and “Paradise Lost.” Now he turns his attention to what’s been called the “Amazon Chernobyl” with his latest documentary “Crude” (opened September 25 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema).

To make his new documentary "Crude," Joe Berlinger spent three years following what has been one of the biggest corporate legal cases – the $27 billion "Amazon Chernobyl" case involving Ecuadorian citizens and Texaco. In 1993, Ecuadorians filed a lawsuit against American owned Texaco (which has since become Chevron) for the way the company handled oil drilling in their country. The Ecuadorians claim that Texaco’s drilling practices left the water and land contaminated, and now local citizens are being stricken with health ailments ranging from rashes to cancer. Texaco naturally denies that they are responsible for any of these problems, and that what they left behind was neither dangerous nor out of the ordinary.

This is a classic tale of David and Goliath with Ecuadorian lawyer Pablo Fajardo and some American back up on one side and the corporate lawyers for Chevron on the other. We hear from the oil company’s environmental scientist who insists there is no contamination, but what we see seems to contradict her statements. We see horrible sludge deep in the earth and water slick with oil residue. We see young children with rashes and adults with cancer. Fajardo and Berlinger then try to connect the dots for us.

Berlinger tries to play out this intense legal drama with something of an even hand. His sympathies are with the Ecuadorians yet he gives the Texaco/Chevron people ample time to make their case. Texaco representatives are not ambushed Michael Moore style or made the butt of jokes like Bill Mahr did with his interviewees in “Religulous.” Instead they are given a forum to tell their side of the story. The only problem is that each time the corporate lawyers or scientists make a point, Berlinger shows us something to contradict them, and he does so in a quiet and straightforward manner without the agitprop heavyhandedness that other documentary filmmakers sometimes rely on. It is a tone that is more likely to persuade through its calmer and seemingly more reasoned approach.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: First Run Pictures


“Crude” is a film that proves a picture is worth a thousand words. Berlinger really only needs the images of polluted water and land to make us take notice and want to have questions answered. Texaco/Chevron argues that the mess left behind is not theirs but rather the fault of the state-run Petro-Ecuador that took over after Texaco. But it’s difficult to believe that Texaco’s hands are entirely clean and that they have no legal responsibility for what’s happening in Ecuador right now.

Berlinger spends time with the Ecuadorian and American lawyers, showing how they are trying to build their case, their meetings with locals suffering from various maladies, their attempts to deal with a corrupt court system as well as an American corporation that is so wealthy that it can afford to spend millions just to delay or complicate proceedings in the hopes that the Ecuadorians will go broke and be forced to drop their case.

“Crude” (unrated and in English and Spanish with English subtitles) is a compelling and forceful work. It creates both a gripping drama about underdogs fighting a giant corporation as well as an effectively researched documentary. It is scheduled to end at the Ken on October 1 so make an effort to seek it out during the week.

Companion viewing: “Paradise Lost,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Giant”

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