Last Wednesday I missioned down to the Flea Pit, on Columbia Road, to see a screening of Crude, which just won the One World Media award for best international documentary. Holding faithfully to directions hastily scrawled in my notebook, ‘x’ marking the spot, I was soon chaining my bicycle to another set of railings, and getting half a lager (organic – and screening activist documentaries, this fairly buzzing bar ticked plenty boxes) in some mystification as to where a film might actually be shown in here. Exchanging cheerful admissions of cluelessness with other hopefuls, we didn’t wait long before being led through to a cool back room all set up for the action. Smoothly moving into reviewer mode, I nabbed a chair with awesome legroom just by the fire exit light : note-taking in the dark tends to leave my page more of a drunken spirograph than anything decipherable.
Joe Berlinger, the director, is here to introduce the film – looking back to his first visit to the Amazon, he remembers a family of local people eating tuna from a steel vat. The river they’d lived off all their lives was no longer producing fish. He wishes us an appreciation of the film – wary of the word ‘enjoyment’ when it deals with the illness and hunger of thousands of people whose land has been so mistreated – when Joe himself watches it back, he finds it at once heartbreaking and inspiring.
The story of Crude manages to make three timeframes hang together : the long-term exploration, pollution and future recovery of the area; the now years-long court case; and the courtroom/boardroom/jungle drama going on as they’re filming. This is thanks mainly to the two strong main characters of Pablo Farjada and Steven Donziger, the Ecuadorean and American lawyers working together to bring a class action lawsuit (filed back in 1993) against the american oil giant Chevron, on behalf of 30 000 people whose lands and water have been recklessly contaminated for over thirty years.
Texaco started exploring for oil there in the seventies. They merged with Chevron in 2001. PetroEcuador worked alongside Chevron/Texaco for some of that time, and since 1990, they have been the sole owner and operator of the oil industry in the area.
Sound complicated? Untangling all the legalities of responsibility is certainly complicated – the case is still dragging on today, with no near hope of completion. Morally and environmentally, though, it all seems as clear as all those abandoned waste pits aren’t : the oil industry has dumped an estimated 1 000 000 000 gallons of toxic contaminated production water and waste water in the area.
The main progress in the film comes from a perhaps unlikely angle – Trudie Styler, of Sting’s wife fame, and co-founder with her husband of the Rainforest Foundation. Stephen Donziger, the lawyer, flies across to the UK to talk to her about it and she subsequently flies down to Ecuador with him to take the ‘toxic tour’ around the contaminated sites. They fly Pablo Farjado up to the Live Earth concert on the 7th July 2007, and on the back of that as well as a Vanity Fair article in May 2007, “Jungle Law” by William Langewiesche, they stir up a good deal of media interest. But it is Trudie Styler’s commitment to the Rainforest Foundation that sees a pilot project of rainwater filtration tanks launched with UNICEF – a temporary solution, she acknowledges, but an important step for the health of the communities and the only glimpse of real movement amongst all the activity documented. Good enough, even, to almost leave aside the fantastic amount of air travel apparently considered essential to further these environmentally-concerned causes.
After the film, the audience got the chance to ask Joe Berlinger a few questions.
Why did you decide to make this film?
Basically, to help people … not that I wasn’t shining a light on different situations in my previous films, like with Metallica (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster). Now that I see the film I think that all my films are about outsiders – Metallica fans are a pretty interesting subset of society, and Paradise Lost was about teens wrongfully convicted.
What do you feel is the legacy of this film?
Financially? It’s a disaster. Purely as a film, it’s not the most successful. But as a tool… It’s been criticised for the ‘Trudie left turn’, but out of everyone whose got involved with this issue, she’s perhaps the only one who has come along and helped, with the water filters. I avoided getting too close to the various NGOs involved. I feel it gains a lot from the objectivity, or the illusion of objectivity because of the Chevron participation. The effectiveness would have been much diminished if it could have been dismissed as just another piece of agitprop.
I appreciate the value of what Trudie Styler’s been doing, but I think I felt a collective wince as she first appeared on screen – perhaps it didn’t need the celebrity angle within the film, could that have come afterwards?
Well, it was certainly a hard fight with my editor, who wanted her out. But a sad fact of the way our society works, is that until the celebrities come down, people don’t get interested. And you can see from the film – this wasn’t just a photo-op drive-by. As I said, she’s been instrumental in the water-filter project, run by the Rainforest Foundation along with UNICEF, which is where concrete progress has been made. I mean, I think that this is the lawsuit that’s going to go on forever. Even the Exxon Valdez accident, which they admitted hands up was an accident, with no dispute as to culpability, took 17 years. And if you do the math, the amount of interest that $27 billion earns in the bank (which is the kind of compensation they’d be looking at) – it’s worth their while to throw $20 million a year at lawyers just to keep this lawsuit at bay.
What developments have there been since you finished the film?
Chevron has increased its lobbying of Congress to cut Ecuador’s trade privileges. And everyone’s waiting on a judge’s decision.
I feel moved and inspired by this film, as I’m sure many people here are and will be when they see it. What can I do?
Basically, while the lawyers argue, the people are suffering. Donate. The Rainforest Foundation are coming to the end of their pilot project of 150 or so water filters, and are looking to start a 3-5 year project. Politically, also – check out the links on the website. And I think that anybody, now – people should be aware of what companies do in their name. Most multinational corporations acting in the third world do terrible things.
How was, or is, your relationship with the company representatives?
I took a long time before reaching out to Chevron. Partly, we were going out to a dangerous part of the world. I had to walk over a crime scene, where someone had been shot, to check into my first hotel. Going around the various sites with the plaintiff and defense attorneys, they had no clue that this would be a feature film. There were plenty of crews around, mostly from the various NGOs. When I eventually contacted Chevron, they felt that if I was to tell an objective story, why wait until now? I said, just look as my reputation – I make ambiguous films. Out of all the guys out there, you should probably be happy that it’s me making this! I was filming plaintiffs meetings, so I said straight upfront, why don’t I film some of your meetings? They didn’t like that. Eventually, I was handled by Hill and North – these ‘crisis PR’ consultants. I love that, for them, I was a ‘crisis’..
Essentially, I think that they have strong legal arguments, but it’s morally reprehensible. It was really a struggle to get them into the film in the end. I’d phone up, saying, ‘I’m locking picture in two months, a month, three weeks… okay, I’m extending my deadline but really now, this is the deadline, because Sundance need a rough cut.’ And so we eventually got the talking heads interviews you see in the film, which was much less dynamic than I had wanted, but worked well enough.
More recently, things have ratcheted up to the point where bloggers have popped up all over to say shitty things about me. And as you saw in some of the mainstream news interviews – calling Pablo [Farjada, the Ecuadorean lawyer] a conman, out to line his own pockets. I invited Chevron to Sundance for a round table discussion, but they wouldn’t sit down with the plaintiffs – I said that they were ready to sit down with you, which is far more extraordinary, but it wasn’t to be.
As a last question, do you have any advice for new filmmakers, finding funding and getting out in the world?
Well, with the current climate, it’s not good. Budgets have collapsed, foundations don’t have much money. And the democratisation of film with Digital Video is a blessing and a curse. For me, who’s used to making films with a certain level of funding and work, and now almost anyone can pick up a digital camera. I mean, it’s great, if people are going out with a camera and just pointing it at what’s happening to get the news out. But we’re going to have to figure out the new media, some way to get some money back to the filmmaker, to keep that professional standard.
Crude is being shown around the world at film festivals and the Human Rights Watch centre – check out the website for the ‘Now Playing’ list. Hopefully there’ll be a wider UK distribution sometime soon, as this testament to liberties taken is well worth the watching.
- Crude, a review of the movie by Joe Berlinger about oil company Chevron-Texaco in the Ecuador Amazon
- Pedalling for primates: pedal-powered cinema in Oxford aids apes and rainforests
- Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou describe making the video animation for new single Big Water
- An interview with fashion film maker Marnie Hollande
- The art of Lee Scratch Perry and new Caribbean cinema