Six Questions, Washington Babylon — October 6, 2009, 12:48 pm

Six Questions for Joe Berlinger about Crude

Ted Trautman contributed reporting for this interview.

Joe Berlinger is the director and producer of the new movie “Crude: The Real Price of Oil,” which tells the story of an epic lawsuit filed against Chevron by 30,000 indigenous rainforest dwellers in the Ecuadorian Amazon. “The plaintiffs claim that Texaco – which merged with Chevron in 2001 – spent three decades systematically contaminating one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, poisoning the water, air and land,” says the film’s website. “The plaintiffs allege that the pollution has created a “death zone” in an area the size of Rhode Island, resulting in increased rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, and a multiplicity of other health ailments.” Berlinger recently answered six questions by phone about his movie. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. How did you become interested in this project?

Steven Donziger, an attorney for the class-action lawsuit presented it. He came to my office in the summer of 2005—we have a mutual friend—and he was telling me about this lawsuit that was in its thirteenth year. All of my filmmaker red flags as to why this might not be a good story to bring to film went up: I’m a cinéma vérité filmmaker; a cinéma vérité filmmaker wants to record things as they happen, and it seemed like since this lawsuit had been going on for 13 years, I’d already missed the boat. Plus, as an attorney, I thought he might have a one-sided agitprop agenda that may not be consistent with my style and philosophy of embracing multiple points of view in a film. I also wondered How am I going to raise money for a film? It’d be a Spanish-language film, subtitled, and probably hard to market.

But he was very persistent, and confident that if I went to Ecuador and saw for myself, I’d have to make the movie. I went, and the moment I saw the pollution, over an area the size of Rhode Island, I was horrified, and embarrassed to be an American, if an American oil company had anything to do with this. In addition to the pollution, it felt like there was a cultural genocide going on. The rivers were terribly polluted, the fish and the animals were diseased, and people were suffering from diseases that they never had 40 years ago.

2. And how did the film get started?

I just decided I would go down and bear witness to the situation—I wasn’t sure if I could make a film out of it. On the second trip, I met Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney on the plaintiffs’ side. Pablo is an extremely compelling character: he pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become the lead attorney in this case, under the most improbable conditions. He went from being a manual laborer in the oil fields to being the lead attorney in the largest oil-related environmental lawsuit on the planet.

Another thing that convinced me that this could make a compelling film was that a lot of the trial scenes actually took place in the jungle. These are actually judicial inspections of the pollution sites. I didn’t know this was going to happen when I first started the story, but on one of my first trips, I got to witness the proceedings and I was just stunned to see how theatrical they were. And they weren’t just arguing their case, but reviewing the history of the case, which allows me to review the history of the case for an audience in the present-tense.

3. You’ve said that you felt compelled to make this film after visiting the Ecuadorian Amazon. Has the film had a positive impact?

The film does not take a position on the lawsuit. There’s a much larger moral issue at stake here. The system that Texaco helped to establish never should have been designed in the first place. However, there are a lot of complicated legal issues involved here, so we don’t take a position on whether or not Chevron is legally responsible from a purely technical standpoint.

From that standpoint, my goal in the film was to raise awareness. The behavior in the third world among the extractive industries is just a modern-day continuation of a six or seven hundred-year-old trend of how white people have treated indigenous people. To me, it’s all part of a continuum that has not changed. The other thing that the film intends to do is raise an awareness of our unbridled consumerism—how we consume products, and not understanding how these products get to us. I think people should understand where our products are coming from, and how these things affect the people on the other end. We should make sure the products we consume, that these products are delivered in such a way that they don’t have a negative impact on people.

4. Although you aspire to neutrality, Crude is, by necessity, very political. Is the film truly neutral?_

The film is only neutral with regard to any judgment on the legal issues involved in the lawsuit. But it is not neutral with regard to where my sympathies lie: they lie with these people who have been victimized by this situation, and by their own government. The movie starts with images of the Cofán people, and it ends with this image with the Cofán people heading downriver to God knows what existence. While the lawyers continue to argue the case, they’re going back to their poisoned communities and another generation will suffer before there is a resolution in the case. The reason the movie is bookended with those images of the Cofán people—the reason I made the film—is I want relief for these people one way or another. And it’s not necessarily going to come through this lawsuit.

5. This case has attracted Western attention because of American lawyers, a Vanity Fair piece, and the activism of Sting. Has that international attention impacted the debate in Ecuador?_

One of the things the film observes is the uncomfortable intersection between celebrity culture and social activism. I have tremendous respect and admiration for what Sting and Trudie (Sting’s wife) have done. They have this program to bring filtered rainwater to the community….This is not a criticism of them when I say that the film observes the intersection of celebrity culture and activism. It’s just that why is it that in our society, we need a celebrity to ratchet up the attention to achieve this kind of dialog? We have just scratched the surface with this film, in terms of the story, and in terms of getting a wide enough audience to have this dialog. I don’t think Crude will have an impact on the outcome of the lawsuit—nor was that the intent. I want to raise an awareness of the plight of indigenous people, to raise awareness that we should be cherishing the knowledge of those who tread lightly upon the earth in a time when we’re on a collision course with environmental catastrophe.

6. Do you identify more fundamentally as an artist or as a journalist?_

I think of myself as a storyteller first, and as a journalist second, but that doesn’t mean I take my journalistic sense lightly. The stories I tell are nonfiction, and in nonfiction there are some things you can’t do.

And I don’t call myself a storyteller just because of some esoteric, aesthetic reason. I think the best way to move people, the best way to advance the cause of whoever you’re advocating for, is to present an emotionally engaging picture. We sink our teeth into the story of Pablo Fajardo, we sink our teeth into the story of one family, a girl whose mother has cancer, we see their 18-hour journey into the mountains to get a cancer treatment. I think the storytelling is a crucial element to the journalism. You reach people by taking complex concepts and expressing them through individual human stories characters, not through a series of abstract statistics and images about pollution.

Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



August 2015

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Books

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Ratio of money spent by Britons on prostitution to that spent on hairdressing:


A German scientist was testing an anti-stupidity pill.

A Twitter spokesperson conceded that a “Frat House”–themed office party “was in poor taste at best.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today