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.