Auto / Energy

Crude: the real price of oil


Year: 2009

Type: Documentary film (105 minutes) and website.

Director / Producer: Joe Berlinger

Production Company: First Run Features

Availability: on DVD ($21.49 new, from $11.19 used on, £9.25 new, from £8.50 used on, £4.99 new from distributors Dogwoof), to download (£4.99 from iTunes), book a screening (via Popup Cinema), watch free trailer and clips (on CrudeTheMovie’s YouTube channel) or stream rent / buy the DVD (via £3.49 / £6.99 below).

Page Reference: Fratkin, J., Hwang, J. and O’Brien, S. (2010) Crude. ( last accessed <insert date here>)




CRUDE is an award-winning documentary film that chronicles the epic battle to hold oil giant Chevron (formerly Texaco) accountable for its systematic contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon - an environmental tragedy experts call ‘the Rainforest Chernobyl’ (Source: Anon nda np link).

The film follows the progress during 2006 and 2007 of a $27 billion legal case brought against the Chevron Corporation following the drilling of the Lago Agrio oil field, a case also known as the ‘Amazon Chernobyl’. The plaintiffs of the class action lawsuit are 30,000 Ecuadorians living in the Amazonian rainforest they claim has been polluted by the oil industry. In addition to the legal struggle, Crude shows interviews from both sides, and explores the influence of media support, celebrity activism, the power of multinational corporations, the shifting power in Ecuadorian politics, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures on the case. The film concludes with the prediction that the legal case will not be resolved for another decade or so (Source: Anon ndb np link).

CRUDE is a real life high stakes legal drama set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics… multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures. Presenting a complex situation from multiple viewpoints, the film examines a complicated situation from several angles while bringing a story of environmental peril and human suffering into focus (Source: Crude Production 2009 np link).

Berlinger covers both sides of the court case, in which oil field laborer-turned-lawyer Pablo Fajardo alleges decades-long ecological terrorism by Chevron (Source: Monder 2009 np link).

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Why? Because it's thick with sludge. Moving briskly through a stranger-than-fiction, serpentine narrative that is still unfolding, Joe Berlinger's remarkable documentary, Crude, recounts an infuriating litany of South American exploitation, backroom glad-handing, and bureaucratic dead ends that has, among other collateral damages, created a Rhode Island-size ‘death zone’ of toxic pollution in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. … In the gripping, intrinsically cinematic Crude, he does … [a] superb job of taking us through the twists and turns of the decade-and-a-half, multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit filed by the Cofán against Chevron - a legal battle nearly as long as the Amazon itself, and with no discernible end in sight (Source: Foundas 2009 np link).

The not about the unintended consequences of using petroleum. Instead, it examines the terrible, frequently unacknowledged costs of extracting oil from the ground. Crude, in other words, investigates the local manifestations – cancer, contaminated water, cultural degradation - of a global problem. It also, more by what it shows than what it says, suggests that such a distinction is no longer tenable (Source: Scott 2009 np link).

Going back and forth between the Amazonian village (and Quito) and protest efforts in the States, the film primarily follows the plaintiffs' lawyers, particularly the American lead, Steve Donziger, while also making time for a goodwill trip from Sting's wife, Trudie Styler, a concert featuring her husband's band, The Police, and a supportive visit to the village by (then) newly elected President Rafael Correa … One of the most fascinating parts of the film involves the actual trial, which is conducted outdoors and rather casually (Source: Campbell 2010 np).

The film effectively presents a coherent and dramatic narrative that weaves together multiple issues at the local, national, and global levels: multinational corporate power, environmental degradation, social justice, international law, public health, celebrity activism and advocacy networks, and individual and indigenous rights (Source: Swimelar 2011 p.1075).

Shooting in dozens of locations on three continents and in multiple languages, Berlinger and his crew gained extraordinary access to players on all sides of the legal fight and beyond, capturing the drama as it unfolded while the case grew from a little-known legal story to an international cause célèbre. Crude is a ground-level view of one of the most extraordinary legal dramas of our time, one that has the potential of forever changing the way international business is conducted. While the environmental impact of the consumption of fossil fuels has been increasingly documented in recent years, Crude focuses on the human cost of our addiction to oil and the increasingly difficult task of holding a major corporation accountable for its past deeds (Source: Anon ndc np link).

Crude begins with a typical back-and-forth. In 2008, news clips show Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and his associate, Luis Yanza, receiving the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Then comes Chevron’s reaction, as a representative says that the men have in effect made up the story for which they’re being honored. What's going on here? Next we see the charismatic Fajardo back in Ecuador and visiting a tiny Amazon enclave where the residents discuss, often in an indigenous language, the progress of the lawsuit. Periodically throughout the film we visit places like this and see the pervasive health problems that have resulted from wretched stewardship of the country's oil resources. We also spend a great deal of time with a Spanish-speaking environmental lawyer from New York named Steven Donziger, someone who specializes in class-action suits and is a key legal advisor to Fajardo. We see and hear Donziger in all kinds of privileged situations, even with Joseph Kohn, the Philadelphia attorney whose firm is bankrolling the case and hopes to profit financially if Chevron loses. Donziger not only discusses legal strategy but works hard to get the kind of publicity that will galvanize public opinion. His courtship of the forceful Trudie Styler, the co-founder, along with her husband, Sting, of the Rainforest Foundation, is shown in detail and is a fascinating case study of real-world political action. Chevron, not surprisingly, does not allow Berlinger into similar meetings, but through statements by their attorneys and representatives, we get a clear idea of the shrewd ways the oil giant is fighting back at every turn (Source: Turan 2009 np link).

Shots of a 20-day-old baby covered in a red rash brings tears to your eyes - that becomes a part of celebrity culture. At one stage, Trudie Styler (Mrs. Sting to you) becomes interested in the story, and she tours the Ecuadorean villages that are, in some cases, built right on top of the polluted soil left behind by oil exploration. ‘Try to use the word ‘Texaco’ as much as possible,’ urges Steven Donziger, the American lawyer who's helping the natives fight the oil giant - since acquired by Chevron - that he blames for the pollution (Source: Stone 2009 np).

The case hinges on the question of who bears responsibility for the dumping of toxic-waste products from oil drilling in Ecuador’s remote rainforest region, where drilling started in the 1960’s. … Chevron has two lines of defense. First, the company asserts that its test show that water quality meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. It blames the recent skin rashes on poor sanitation and faecal matter in the water. Second, it says that it fulfilled its cleanup obligations when Texaco pulled out. At the time, Texaco spent $40 million cleaning up and Petroecuador agreed to take responsibility for any further cleanup costs. In the 15 years since then, Petroecuador has done quite a bit of ecological damage itself (Source: Mufson 2009a np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

I met the plaintiffs’ consulting attorney Steven Donziger (who is one of the central characters in ‘Crude’) in the Fall of 2005, through Richard Stratton. Richard is a screenwriter I’d known for a while through our mutual friend, the late Eddie Bunker. Steven told me about the case and it sounded interesting, so I went down to Ecuador to check it out. When I saw the devastation in the Amazon and heard stories from the local people, I was shocked, disturbed and profoundly moved. Plus, it seemed like a huge story that at the time no one was really paying any attention to. Although I’m always on the lookout for stories as potential film subjects, I didn’t immediately see this as a feature documentary. Despite being deeply affected by what I saw in Ecuador, it didn’t strike me that it would translate into something other than a news story or some kind of one-sided environmental expose, neither of which interested me. But I did feel like I wanted to help these people in some way. I was haunted by images of the people I saw in the Amazon, suffering from disease, eating canned tuna because the fish are gone from the once-pristine river in a place that used to be a paradise. This location, after all, was once of the few places on earth that survived the last ice age, yet it is struggling to survive industrial development (Source: Berlinger in Anon 2009a np link).

A single image captured the effects of oil-drilling for Berlinger: ‘On the second day of the trip, I got out of the canoe to meet with village elders, and I noticed people by the side of the river preparing a communal meal with canned tuna fish, because all the fish in their rivers were dead or diseased. That ... broke my heart: Here were these water-based people eating canned tuna from another part of the world because they couldn't eat what was in their rivers’ (Source: Barnes 2010 p16).

Berlinger: … I barely knew where Ecuador was – I had to go look it up on a map …! I worried that if I, as an intelligent moviemaker, don’t even know where Ecuador is, will the general audience even care? Add to that that it’s obviously going to have a chunk of the action in two other languages. I thought, how am I going to raise money for a subtitled film, in a country most Americans have never heard of? ... Tonic: What intrigued you enough to go? Berlinger: I said to Steven [Donzinger, the attourney], ‘I’ve been all around the globe but never been to the Amazon rainforest. As long as you understand that I have a lot of doubts, if you want to take me down, and take the gamble that it’s not going to pay off, I will be happy to take this trip.’ The trip ended up being an eye opening, life changing epiphany for me. And making this film was my environmental wakeup call. Tonic: How long was that first trip? Berlinger: Two days in Quito, three in the rainforest, and I was dumbfounded. The pollution was far worse than he described. I think one of the failings of Crude is the two-dimensionality. You have to see it with the naked eye, smell it to really understand what has been done to this region. I was shocked at the level of pollution, the level of despair, the amount of disease. By the second day of the trip, I started to feel the criteria of not making this film wear down. … Tonic: How did the film get so much bigger? Berlinger: The minute I let go of my aesthetic criteria, all of the things I was worried about started to materialize. Like meeting Pablo Fajardo over a bowl of potato soup. When I met Pablo, I felt like, ‘I have a hero!’ He has this incredible story: An impoverished oil field worker, who saw the injustice all around him at a young age, vows to himself he’s going to do something about it. He pulls himself up by the bootstraps gets himself educated, becomes the lead attorney as his first legal case in the largest environmental lawsuit against the 5th largest company in the world. You couldn’t make that up (Source: Tonic 2009 link).

Berlinger wisely dispenses with voiceover, instead relying on the occasional caption and a fly-on-the-wall approach, interspersed with occasional to-camera pieces and interviews with the main participants. … The editing is extremely impressive throughout, to the point where you get thoroughly absorbed in the case; consequently, there are some extremely suspenseful sequences, particularly when the court appoints an independent expert to pass a definitive judgment on the level of pollution. The film also offers an intriguing perspective on the importance of celebrity endorsement – the scenes of Trudie Styler being shown around the jungle are borderline excruciating in places and yet there's no denying the phenomenal impact her passionate involvement has on both the case and the lives of the victims (Source: Turner 2010 np link).

The aesthetic aspects of the film are just as powerful as the story itself: the opening scene of the map of Ecuador where a black dot of oil spreads and swallows up the entire country, close ups of a shimmering sheen of oil on a slow river, copious amounts of black sludge, a small child’s body peppered with a bright red rash, lawyers in each other’s faces surrounded by a polluted landscape, and poor indigenous women recounting a choice between food and medicine. Berlinger’s camera belies any pretense to objectivity (itself a myth in the world of documentaries) since it is hard to deny these tragic images and sympathize instead with Chevron scientists in pristine Houston skyline offices. Crude’s tragic, and yet at times light and comic narrative always keeps the viewer anxiously waiting for the next turn of events and the next colorful actor (Source: Swimelar 2011 p.1075-6).

Mr. Berlinger said he was moved by the poverty and degradation he saw but determined that ‘Crude’ not be agitprop, or even activist. The film includes interviews and arguments from the accused polluters. ‘Some people will come away thinking the oil companies are right,’ he said. ‘As a storyteller, I want to present arguments and then let people dig a little deeper. But if it felt like plaintiffs’ propaganda, it would be ghettoized. I’d be preaching to the converted and not to a wider, more critical audience’ (Source: Anderson 2009a np link).

I just dove into a subject that I wanted to film without worrying about how we were going to pay for it or who was going to show it. (‘Crude’ didn’t get funded until we’d been shooting for nearly a year) … It was also a return to a kind of handmade, DIY filmmaking for me, largely because of the massive scope of this story and the kinds of locations we were shooting in made it something of a guerilla effort (Source: Berlinger in Anon 2009a link).

Berlinger, who arrives in Ecuador just as the evidentiary phase of the trial is about to begin, presents both sides of the case as objectively as possible, never inserting himself into the narrative, and turning the audience, in effect, into a jury (Source: Foundas 2009 np link).

Discussion / Responses

The phrase most remembered and repeated by one of the Ecuadorian plaintiff’s lawyers is ‘this was industrial exploitation permitted by the law.’ Essentially, do we conclude that the environmental damage is the natural result of extensive oil production that was legally permitted and supported by state and private actors, rather that a question of a malfunctioning production system or a conscious effort to destroy the environment? And if it is the former, what are the implications for environmental and human rights protection? Thus, this question is one of the lingering thoughts brought out by the film that provides plenty of potential debate among viewers or students of human rights (Source: Swimelar 2011, p.1075).

It’s infuriating, at the least, to look at and listen to evidence - and listen to Chevron’s lawyers and spokespeople denying all the things they so obviously are guilty of (Source: Fine 2009 np link).

The pollution speaks for itself. Chevron messed up big time, now they have to man up, pay up and try to improve there dire pollution record. We all know oil companies want as much profit as possible, that’s there game. The pollution that oil exploration is responsible for ‘should’ in an ideal world be cleaned up by responsible companies. If not, they should be forced (legally) to clear up there mess (Source: kaieteurdevon 2011 np link).

Crude has an edge-of-your-seat quality that’s more thriller than documentary, and Berlinger manages to convey the life or death urgency of the Ecuadorean situation. This is, in many ways, a shocking film, and Berlinger’s ability to connect the global dots is impressive (Source: Braun 2009 np link).

In its gripping portrayal of the continuing legal battle between native Ecuadoreans and the oil company that may have caused catastrophic damage to the waters of the Amazon, Crude ventures far beyond the parameters of the average enviro-doc. … But Crude is just as much about the ways in which the Ecuadoreans’ struggle is packaged for the media and cause-conscious celebrities as it is about the specific details of their quest to repair the damage to their indigenous lands. Berlinger presents the former as a matter of necessity. The underlying implication is that eliciting the sympathies of celebs may be a more effective tactic than seeking solutions through legal systems that inevitably favour the side with the deepest pockets. … Nevertheless, Berlinger provides a bracing and intelligent look at how such battles are (and perhaps must be) fought in a world that's hardly lacking when it comes to tales of injustice (Source: Anderson 2009c np link).

We see the awful results of toxic pollution - cancers, sores on two-week-old infants - and the movie's savvy enough to let us hear the corporate response in full. The focus, though, is strategy: when do you bring in the global popstar (Sting) and his eco-activist wife (Trudie Styler)? When do you let the people speak for themselves? I liked the movie, and I really like Berlinger … but there's not much closure here (the lawsuit is still pending) and its patient vision of people empowering themselves is more subtly rewarding than audience-rousing (Source: Burr 2009 np link).

Once you watch this dvd with conviction, you will fully understand the real price of oil or in other words crude. ... I am no enviromentalist or an extreamist activist, I am an every day car user just like yourselves. The people we are witnessing their grief are the amazonians, please don't let this put you off this gem of journalism there is a moral to this. The oil company treat people with contempt, it happens to be one of the largest american oil companies. Lies, corruption and feel they have done nothing wrong. You really need to see this, it is spoken in their native tongue and we have subtitles, but you fully understand the consiquence these people are up against. Their lives are being destroyed all in the quest to feed our cars and we are like a drug addict. We can't live without it. remember this is not about us, it's about the forgoten wilderness the amazon and most of all the amazonians who live there (Source: Powell 2009 np link).

I just love watching the Chevron attorneys with their, ‘That's our story, we are sticking to it. You have no proof’ defense. I live on a 38,000 acre ranch in South Texas where Texaco has operated since 1935 and Chevron Texaco continues to operate here. They are the only operators on their lease. We have the same pits that Ecuador has. There are sick people across Railroad Commission District #4. The municipal water supplies are full of volatile organics and other chemicals common in oilfield produced water. Texaco and ExxonMobil and a few other majors did the exact same practices in South Texas as they did in Ecuador. We deal with the stone faced arrogant oil company lawyers on a daily basis. They just lie endlessly. I hope that other people around the world see this movie and see how the companies behave. They didn't clean anything up in South Texas. People are sick here, too. I'm so glad that this movie was made and made well. People will realize that Chevron has a bigger mess than Ecuador. They need to clean up their mess and be truthful to their stockholders (Source: Burns 2010 link).

I'm deeply ashamed that our lifestyle could cause such suffering and destruction in other countries but the concept is not new to me because I know about what Shell has done in Nigeria. There is a great deal of heartbreak and much that causes shame in this movie. At the same time, It's uplifting to see Pablo Fajardo, a humble man from a fiscally poor but morally wealthy family, take on one of the most complicated cases in history in true David versus Goliath style.  … The scientific expert working on this case says that this could never happen in the United States but he is dead wrong. As Elizabeth Burns said, it has happened and it continues to happen every day. I live on top of the Barnett Shale in Wise County in North Texas. I have a blog, Bluedaze: DRILLING REFORM FOR TEXAS, where I document industry abuses such as burying the waste pits or simply abandoning them. Like Elizabeth Burns, I have dozens of videos and hundreds of pictures. Come see for yourself (Source: Wilson 2010 link).

I had to refrain myself for throwing things at my TV set every time the ‘scientist’ working at Chevron was being interviewed. I will limit myself to two outrageous claims on her part. First she related the skin diseases of the newborn babies not to the polluted water but to bacteria from the raw sewage (ignoring the *fact* that there simply are no sewers in the Amazon). Furthermore, she claimed that ‘crude in the environment can degrade very rapidly’... To this kind of ‘science’, I can only think of quoting Bill Maher, the stand-up comedian: ‘The big oil companies must stop running ads telling us how much they're doing for the environment. We get it: you rape the earth, but you cuddle afterward. It's insulting...’ (Source: Denutte 2010 link).

No one who watches this film, which won accolades worldwide, can come away without the uncomfortable realization that the price we pay for our oil habit is far greater than merely $4 a gallon at the pump. Petroleum drilling is a toxic, ugly, unsustainable human and environmental catastrophe, and the price paid in human lives, desecration of the earth and corporate greed is far too high for any society to pay (Source: Friedman 2010 link).

If you are searching for a smoking gun, anti-drilling, anti-corporate documentary, stop at those facts and move on. From here on out it gets complicated. The maker of the movie, Joe Berlinger, doesn't seem to know whose side he is on ... for at the end of the movie the arguments made by Chevron attorneys start to make sense and the case promoted by the 'heroes' weaker and weaker. First mistake is having the movie be told from the lawyer point of view rather than the people's point of view. … A sad documentary indeed. More interest is paid to a lawsuit than the obvious: help the people! Get them out of there! Raise funds so they don't HAVE to drink oil laced water! Worry about the lawsuit after the people are in safe conditions! This film was made as a propaganda piece. Poorly produced, poorly edited, poorly filmed, poorly directed, ‘Crude’ is just that: a crude film with more questions than answers (Source: Saint Michael 2010 link).

After all that Wall Street and other 'too big to fail' corporations have done to our country, I really wanted to see a story where a big corporation got what was coming to them for raping the environment and leaving a trail of destruction in the country where they made their fortune. While the film skillfully plays on your emotions with the editing of scenes back and forth between sick babies and sludge filled ponds and rivers where the people live, eat and drink, it is short on facts. It is clearly told from the plaintiffs point of view and that's fine (every 'objective' documentary has a story to tell) but you need to make your case. This was billed as a kind of 'legal thriller' documentary. I tried to look at it from a perspective juror's standpoint. As much as I felt emotionally for the people I don't know if I would be able to convict Chevron based on this film. It is woefully short on medical documentation connecting the dots between what Chevron did to their environment and the cancer outbreaks. There were no statistics of before and after cancer cases or how the environment contributed to the cancer. Also, it would be foolish, based on history, to think the government of Ecuador was an innocent player (Source: Loves to Read ‘Lu’ 2010 link).

Chevron spokesperson Kent Robertson recently attacked the film as being ‘long on emotions and short on facts’ even though no one at Chevron has actually confirmed seeing the film. Filmmaker Joe Berlinger called Robertson's claims ‘outlandish’, pointing out that ‘the film goes to great lengths to give as much attention to the positions of each of the opposing parties in this landmark case as is possible in a featured length documentary.’ ‘The nationwide release of CRUDE is a nightmare for Chevron,’ said Mitch Anderson, Corporate Accountability Campaigner with Amazon Watch. ‘We urge people to see the film and to let Chevron know that it can no longer afford to evade it's clean up responsibility in Ecuador.’ CRUDE is a high-stakes David vs. Goliath legal drama with 30,000 Amazon rainforest dwellers facing down the 5th largest corporation in the world for the dumping of 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and abandoning over 900 unlined crude oil pits in the midst of rainforest communities. CRUDE shows the truth that Chevron doesn't want the world to see,’ said Atossa Soltani, Executive Director of Amazon Watch. ‘The film is a balanced look at all sides of this monumental case but in the end, Chevron clearly emerges as the guilty party. As CRUDE continues to pack theaters, the pressure for Chevron to be held accountable in Ecuador will surely grow’ (Source: Anon 2009b np link).

It’s a pretty even-handed account, letting Chevron’s spokespeople make their case and noting that the New York law firm backing the plaintiffs will take a cut if the oil company is forced to pay compensation. What’s lacking, however, is cinematic oomph. The images of the Ecuadorians’ suffering are powerful, to be sure, but the film has little narrative structure. Not so much a movie as an extended news report (Source: Porter 2010 np link).

What the film also doesn’t show is just how galling the entire affair must be for Chevron, which has long prided itself on being more ecologically correct, open, and savvy than its colleagues at companies such as Texaco. Is Chevron liable for most of the $27 billion in damages one Ecuadoran expert says have been caused by oil development? Berlinger says that even now he doesn’t feel qualified to judge. But, he says, ‘at the end of the day, we should all care more about how companies act in our name and the things that they do even if they’re perfectly legal’’(Source: Mufson 2009b np link).

‘Crude is generating unprecedented public awareness about Chevron’s irresponsible practices in Ecuador,’ said Atossa Soltani Executive Director of Amazon Watch. ‘The film shows both sides and allows the audience to be the judge on whether Chevron is guilty. Chevron is fast losing the battle in the court of public opinion and showing clear signs that it is afraid of CRUDE’ (Source: Anderson and Magal 2009 np link).

Small wonder Chevron are running scared … the enormous legal liability tied to all of these harms provides the context for why Chevron is so aggressively attacking its critics across the world (Source: Styler 2010 np link).

As the film very eloquently implies, when the greater good is defined as profits, and a lack of culpability is proportionate to your number of shareholders, well … a lot of petroleum-soaked chickens will be coming home to roost. For three years, Berlinger followed the now-17-year-old lawsuit against Chevron filed by 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorans, and the results are an eco-war strategy as might have been devised by Sun Tzu. Witnesses are prepped, strategies are rehearsed, judges are buttonholed and celebrities are stroked - and this is the strategy of the ‘good guys,’ as they probably would be defined by Berlinger. While both sides in the case certainly are given their voice, it's unlikely that the director - who enjoys a lucrative commercial career in New York - would have been inspired to leave hearth and home by his deep sense of injustice over the sufferings of Chevron. And yet, ‘Crude’ is that rare thing in fiction or nonfiction cinema, a movie that relies on its audience to draw the right conclusions. Chevron makes a decent case for itself: It wasn't even in the Amazon from 1972 to 1990, when an alleged 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater were dumped there, sickening the inhabitants (notably the plaintiff Cofán tribe). But Texaco was, and Chevron took it over in 2001. And while much blame is assigned by all parties to the government-owned PetroEcuador, which has run the country's oil production since the early '90s, all the experts brought in to make assessments conclude that the damage is deep and old. Chevron's motives are clear - although the pending judgment against it is ‘only’ $27 billion, it hardly pays to set a precedent and settle. … When we see Chevron's agents - such as counsel Ricardo Reis Veiga, who has since been indicted for fraud - they admit nothing. Berlinger lets it play out artfully. The fact that Chevron's representatives come across as soulless shills is hardly his fault; he lets them present their case without comment. It's hardly his responsibility to make someone such as corporation scientist Sara McMillan appear less reptilian when she contends that there's been no damage to the jungle, no oil-related illness, no correlation between pollution and death. From what the viewer can tell, Chevron is a little like the guy who performed a little surgery and stole your kidneys: What kidneys? Prove you ever had kidneys! If the movie is any indication, Chevron would have the public believe there was no Amazon at all - something people might be willing to believe, were Berlinger not sticking ‘Crude’ in their faces (Source: Anderson 2009b np link).

The role of the media in high stakes cases such as this one illustrates the importance of reputational costs to companies and other potential human rights violators. But it also illustrates that for all the celebrity glamour, NGO publicity, smart lawyers, and local action on the ground, this legal battle now in its second decade, is the proverbial uphill battle. As one of the plaintiff’s lawyers says, it is a huge victory just to have a trial and to have some media recognition. One of the most powerful strengths of this film is to vividly show the close link between environmental degradation and individual human dignity and thus human rights. This film is highly recommended for courses and students of environmental studies and politics, human rights, international law, and international relations (Swimelar 2011, p.1076).

Outcomes / Impacts

Tonic: How can people help? Berlinger: If you visit the CRUDE site, we have a page, ‘Get Involved,’ with a list of supporting organizations. In particular I would love for people to click on the UNICEF logo and make a contribution to The Water Project. Each of the barrels we showed people getting in the film cost about $500. I’m glad to say that the film has been used to raise a lot of money for the program (Source: Tonic 2009 link).

Berlinger's reputation as a skilled filmmaker-journalist and the topical subject matter make ‘Crude’ must-viewing for those who care about the planet. It wouldn't be surprising if the film has an impact on the legal wrangling in the courts, let alone popular knowledge and opinion (Source: Monder 2009 np link).

The film's success and high profile has provoked increasingly desperate tactics from Chevron, including the release of a purported bribery scandal video in an attempt to confuse the public and delay the legal proceedings in the 16-year trial (Source: Anon 2009b np link).

For 17 years, the San Ramon, Calif.-based energy giant has fought a class-action lawsuit in Ecuador that could cost it up to $27 billion in damages and clean-up costs. Lawyers for Chevron are convinced that the environmental contamination litigation is tainted, alleging that an expert was not impartial, a report was fabricated and a judge was bribed. When Chevron saw director Joe Berlinger's 2009 documentary ‘Crude,’ a behind-the-scenes look at the lawsuit, the company believed it had found cinematic proof of misconduct - and demanded to see everything else Berlinger discovered in the three years he spent making the film. Some documentarians say Chevron's action against Berlinger… is part of a movement to marginalize nonfiction filmmakers by subjects unhappy over how they have been depicted. Chevron and Dole Food Co. [see our Bananas!* page here] argue that some of today's documentarians … are mouthpieces for plaintiffs' lawyers, and should not necessarily enjoy all of the legal protections afforded most journalists against turning over unused material such as notes and outtakes. Chevron calls ‘Crude’ ‘an unapologetic work of propaganda’ while Berlinger defends his feature-length movie as ‘a very fair and balanced film’ (Source: Horn 2010 np link).

In advance of the premiere, today prominent human rights activist featured in Crude, human rights advocate Trudie Styler, extended a personal invitation to all 6,000 Bay Area Chevron employees to attend a free screening of the film … including CEO David O’Reilly (Source: Dupré 2009 np link).

A key tool in that PR battle has been Crude, a well-done film that took a clear side against Chevron, despite the protests of director Joe Berlinger that he was fairly examining the issues. As Chevron defends itself against the civil lawsuit and as Chevron employees in Ecuador defend themselves against malicious prosecution there, the company seeks access to the video, which could reveal the strategizing among government officials in Ecuador and the trial lawyer team. Already seen footage shows Donziger and Ecuador attorney Pablo Fajardo working with a supposed neutral expert appointed by a judge to examine the evidence of contamination and recommend damages … Berlinger is claiming that his outtakes should not be turned over because their confidentiality is protected by his First Amendment rights as a journalist. Some media groups and the usual arts and grievance crowd have joined in. (Woody Allen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gorbachev!) Its a thin legal argument with little precedent, but not to be rejected out of hand: The public interest is served, generally, by allowing journalists to practice their news collecting and reporting freely (Source: Wood 2010 np).

Chevron has one animating principle in their attacks on Joe Berlinger, the Ecuadorean people, and anyone attempting to hold the company responsible for the pollution it left behind in Ecuador: to find some way of eliminating the legal liability to protect the company's bottom line (Source: Styler 2010 np link).

Chevron … says that footage shot by Mr. Berlinger could help its cause by showing instances of improper collaboration between the Ecuadorean plaintiffs and court-appointed experts ... The panel ruled that Mr. Berlinger must turn over to Chevron ‘all footage that does not appear in publicly released versions of ‘Crude’’ that depict the lawyers for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, private or court-appointed experts or current or former Ecuadorean government officials. Chevron may use this footage ‘solely for litigation, arbitration or submission to official bodies, either local or international,’ the order said, and must reimburse Mr. Berlinger’s ‘reasonable expenses of sorting and duplication of footage’ (Source: Itzkoff 2010 np link).

Berlinger argued that his outtakes are protected by journalist privilege, which shields reporters from revealing confidential sources or divulging confidential material. ‘The point is that access in the future for journalists like me might not be granted,’ said Berlinger. ‘Stories like Crude might not be told, and that is what we are fighting about’ (Source: Jabaji 2010 np link).

Now, CRUDE director Joe Berlinger finds himself under attack from Chevron, which has dragged him into court to demand that he turn over all 600+ hours of footage shot during the making of the film. Chevron wants to scour the footage for any material that might help its relentless public relations schemes to try to discredit the plaintiffs and their attorneys who are suing Chevron for environmental clean-up. It's just another chapter in Chevron's belligerent and well-financed effort to evade responsibility for its toxic legacy in the Amazon (Source: Anon nda np link).

A federal appeals court ruled on Thursday that journalists risk losing their privilege to shield notes and outtakes from subpoena if they fail to show editorial independence. The decision involved director Joe Berlinger and his 2009 documentary ‘Crude,’ which chronicled Ecuadoran residents' class action suit against Chevron over environmental damage to a rain-forest region of the country… The three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said that ‘while freedom of speech and of the press belongs to virtually anyone who intends to publish anything (with a few narrow exceptions), all those who intend to publish do not share an equal entitlement to the press privilege from compelled disclosure.’ The appellate judges upheld U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan's decision to deny Berlinger press privilege, citing facts that they say raise doubts about his independence: Steve Donziger, counsel for the Ecuadoran residents suing Chevron, solicited Berlinger to make the documentary, and Berlinger removed a scene from the final version of the project at the request of the plaintiffs' attorneys (Source: Johnson 2011 np link).

We, the members of the Executive Committee of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, would like to add our support to filmmaker Joe Berlinger in his efforts to resist a federal subpoena ordering him to turn over hundreds of hours of footage shot during the making of his documentary film ‘Crude, the Real Price of Oil’ … This is not the first story involving a corporation attempting to use it considerable power and influence - plus the subpoena powers of the United States courts - to ‘defend itself’ against perceived attacks by an investigative journalist and/or filmmaker. This time, however, more is at stake than simply the fate of Mr. Berlinger’s raw footage. Chevron’s attempt to gain access to 600 hours of documentary film material - and the court’s ruling in support of this - jeopardizes one of the fundamental tenets of investigative journalism, both on film and in print. A journalist’s sources are essential to any work that challenges the status quo or reveals injustice. In order for documentary filmmakers and journalists to do their jobs, they must gain, and be prepared to honor, the trust of their sources, people who come forward to tell their stories often at great personal risk to themselves and their families. Such material, whether or not it appears in the completed work, has historically been covered by ‘reporter’s privilege,’ the First Amendment right protecting journalists and their subjects from arbitrary discovery. We fear that Judge Lewis Kaplan’s May 6th ruling in Chevron’s favor could have far-reaching, potentially devastating consequences for this time-honored privilege and for the bond of trust between journalist and subject which it is designed to protect and preserve. We join with our colleagues at the Producer’s Guild, the Director’s Guild, and the International Documentary Association in urging the higher courts to overturn this ruling in order to ensure the safety and protection of all journalists and their subjects, and to promote a free and vital press in our nation and around the world (Source: Epstein et al 2010 p1-2 link).

As the battle to defend our First Amendment rights presses on, our mounting legal fees are extraordinarily costly. As the third-largest corporation in America, Chevron has far more financial resources at its disposal than we do. We have set up this Kickstarter page as a way for our supporters to help us raise funds for our defense against Chevron and stand up in favor of the future of documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism… 479 BACKERS…$30,743 PLEDGED OF $20,000 GOAL (Source: Anon ndd np link).

Today in New York City, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that Berlinger will be awarded a full hearing in July on his appeal, and as a result, the district court’s May 20th order directing Berlinger to produce the footage will be suspended during the pendency of the appeal. Berlinger’s lead attorney, Maura Wogan of Frankfurt Kurnit, says today’s decision ‘signals that the appeals court takes seriously the rights of investigative journalists like Joe Berlinger,’ and  Berlinger is ‘delighted that the appellate court seems to understand the significant public interest in our appeal being heard’ (Source: Anon 2010 np link)

Late yesterday afternoon, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit modified a lower court order that had required CRUDE’s director Joe Berlinger to turn over all of his raw film footage to Chevron Corp … Berlinger’s attorney Maura Wogan says that ’while we await the appeals court’s formal legal opinion on the journalist’s privilege, this interim order does substantially limit Judge Kaplan’s decision and place restrictions on Chevron,’ interpreting this verdict as a ‘win for Joe Berlinger, journalists, and documentarians everywhere,’ as the lower court order would have required Berlinger to produce more than 600 hours of raw film footage, whereas under the appeals court order, Berlinger will produce only unused footage that falls into specific categories (Source Berlinger 2010 np link).

A court in Ecuador has fined US oil giant Chevron $8.6bn (£5.3bn) for polluting a large part of the country's Amazon region. The oil firm Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, was accused of dumping billions of gallons of toxic materials into unlined pits and Amazon rivers…The company will also have to pay a 10% legally mandated reparations fee, bringing the total penalty to $9.5bn (£5.9bn). Pablo Fajardo, lawyer for the plaintiffs, described the court ruling as ‘a triumph of justice over Chevron's crime and economic power’. ‘This is an important step but we're going to appeal this sentence because we think that the damages awarded are not enough considering the environmental damage caused by Chevron here in Ecuador,’ he told the BBC. A Chevron statement said the firm would appeal, and called the ruling ‘illegitimate and unenforceable’ (Source: Anon 2011 np link).

I consider myself a generally well-informed person, but I have to say that I had known little or nothing about the case of an American oil company being sued in South America for massive environmental pollution. When I heard the news, though, that the American oil company in question, Chevron, successfully lobbied a U.S. judge recently to turn over to the oil company 600 hours of footage from the making of this documentary, I knew I had to find out what it is that Chevron is trying to censor. I immediately bought this DVD on Amazon … Knowledge is indeed power, and having watched this documentary I understand much more clearly what is happening, for example, with the British Petroleum oil spill that has already devastated much of the U.S. southern coastline. This kind of massive oil pollution and contamination is the future, folks, unless we arm ourselves with knowledge and truth and stop it. We may not have the authority to set national government policy or be able to gain an audience with an oil company CEO, but what we *can* do as consumers is empower ourselves with knowledge and arm ourselves with truth -- because for all its sheer arrogance and bluster in this film, Chevron/Texaco and other corporate crooks like it don't stand a chance against informed, knowledgeable citizens. And that is one reason why Chevron still intends to get its grimy hands on those 600 hours of raw footage that shaped this movie, ‘Crude’, by Joe Berlinger, despite the filmmaker's ongoing appeal for protection of freedom of the press and speech under the U.S. Constitution. Buy this DVD - today - and make your own small but worthy investment in a future society that puts corporate polluters right where they belong: behind bars and on ‘corporate chain gangs’ to clean up their own environmental catastrophes. Chevron/Texaco, for one, will not be happy that you purchased this film right here on (ahem) Amazon (Source: Covert 2010 link).

For filmmaker Joe Berlinger, one of the takeaways of his new documentary about the ongoing impact of 2010’s BP oil disaster is that the surviving victims aren’t giving in or giving up. … [Berlinger:] Animal Planet liked my film ‘Crude’ and wanted to do something about the Gulf spill. We all decided that focusing on the plight of a cross section of residents and taking a non-partisan presentation of the complexities would provide a unique approach. I also was personally dismayed that the national media kind of packed up and moved on to the next disaster, falsely leaving the impression that everything was back to normal, which clearly it is not. I wanted to move beyond the finger-pointing and put a human face on the tragedy in the hope of inspiring people to do the right thing. … I felt that it was very important to tell a complete and balanced story. One-sided diatribes only serve to preach to the converted. Therefore, we worked very hard throughout the production period to get BP's point of view in the film. They took a long time - almost six months I believe - before they agreed. In fact, they agreed to be in the film really at the very end of our production window, so they almost did not make it into the film. To their credit, they gave us some pretty good access. Considering I am the guy who made the movie ‘Crude,’ about the 17-year Ecuadorian indigenous struggle to hold Chevron responsible for pollution in the Amazon rain forest, and that during the period we were making ‘Black Tide’ I was still embroiled in a very high profile First Amendment battle with Chevron over the outtakes to ‘Crude,’ I am actually surprised they agreed to be in the film. Therefore, I give them a lot of credit for that (Source: Walker 2011 link).

References / Further Reading

Anderson, J. (2009a) Film: two shots at one target: oil polluters. The New York Times, 16 January ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Anderson, J. (2009b) Movie review: 'Crude,' Chevron vs. Ecuadorans. The Washington Post, 23 October ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Anderson, J. (2009c) Crude: eco-crime and the power of celebrity., 9 October ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Anderson, M. and Magel, N. (2009) The Hollywood premiere of Crude a huge hit., 18 September ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Anon (nda) Crude: the film Chevron doesn’t want you to see. ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Anon (ndb) Crude (2009) Synopsis. ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Anon (ndc) About. ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Anon (ndd) Crude fight for the First Amendment. ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Anon (2009a) Joe Berlinger, ‘Crude’: returning to one’s artistic roots., 6 January ( last accessed 10 July 211)

Anon (2009b) Chevron fears CRUDE’s box office success., 9 September ( last accessed 7 July 2011)

Anon (2009c) Trudie Styler personally invites 6,000 Chevron employees to Crude., 25 September ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Anon (2009d) Chevron lawyer stumbles in 60 Minutes interview over Ecuador oil contamination., 4 May (  last accessed 10 July 2011)

Anon (2010) Berlinger wins ‘stay’ of footage turnover order; hearing for appeal in July., 8 June ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Anon (2011) Chevron fined for Amazon pollution by Ecuador court., 15 February ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Barnes S. (2010) Disaster Movie. Times Union (US), 18 Febuary, p.16

Berlinger, J. (2010) Berlinger receives final court order from Appeals Court., 16 July ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Braun, L. (2009) Ecuador vs. Big Oil in 'Crude'., 9 October ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Burns, E.T. (2010) Chevron has the same mess here in Texas! Crude: customer review. 14 January ( last accessed 9 August 2011)

Burr, T. (2009) Sundance, game over: the awards etc., 26 January ( last accessed 6 July 2011)

Campbell, C. (2010) Doc Talk: 'Crude' and 'A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash'. cinematical, 26 May ( last accessed 6 July 2011)

Campbell, C. (2011) Doc talk: how could documentary cinema change for the better? cinameatical, 17 March ( last accessed 6 July 2011)

Covert, B. (2010) The movie the oil companies don’t want you to see. Crude: customer review. 23 June ( last accessed 9 August 2011)

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Denutte, G. (2010) The oil spills in drilling operations in pristine rainforests exposed. Crude: customer review. 15 May ( last accessed 9 August 2011)

Dupré, D. (2009) CRUDE movie human rights worker invites 6000 Chevron workers to free screening., 25 September ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Epstein, R. Littman, L. and Pearce, R. (2010) Statement from the Executive Committee of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences., 9 July p.1-2 ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Fine, M. (2009) Movie review: Crude and Chevron's Social Darwinism, The Huffington Post, 4 September ( last accessed 6 July 2011)

Flores, A. (2010) It’s a jungle., 12 February ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

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Itzkoff, D. (2010) Director accepts limits on Chevron to footage. The New York Times 16 July, ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Jabaji, R. (2010) Chevron vs. 30,000 Ecuadorian rainforest dwellers and a filmmaker., 13 July ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Johnson, T. (2011) Court rules against Joe Berlinger on Crude., 14 January ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Kaieteurdevon (2011) User comment. ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Loves To Read ‘Lu’ (2010) Long on emotion, short on facts. Crude: customer review. 27 February ( last accessed 9 August 2011).

Monder,E. (2009) Crude: film review., 9 September ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Mufson, S. (2009a) A look at 'Crude,' opening at E Street Cinema. The Washington Post, 22 October ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Mufson, S. (2009b) ‘Crude’ taps into a true oil disaster. The Boston Globe, 1 November ( last accessed 6 July 2011)

Porter, J. (2010) Crude. The Sunday Times, 17 January ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Powell, M. (2010) Crude: Amazon user review., 11 December ( last accessed 10 July 2011)

Saint Michael (2010) Poorly done. Crude: customer review. 16 September ( last accessed 9 August 2011)

Scott, A.O. (2009) Movie review: Crude: big oil’s stains in the Amazon. The New York Times, 9 September ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Stone, J. (2009) Disaster in the Amazon: Crude a fascinating documentary of dirty oil in the rainforest. Canwest News Services, 15 December

Styler, T. (2010) Chevron tries to restrict 1st Amendment in latest twist in Crude saga. Huffington Post, 14 July ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Swimelar, S. (2011) Human rights through film: an essay and review of selected films from the Human Rights Watch 2009 Film Festival. Human rights quarterly 32(4), p.1069-1078

Tonic (2009) A ‘Crude’ awakening. 7 October ( last accessed 9 August 2011)

Turan, K. (2009) Movie review: ‘Crude’. Los Angeles Times, 18 September ( 2009sep18,0,4140417.story last accessed 1 July 2011)

Turner, M. (2010) Crude film review., 13 January ( last accessed 1 July 2011)

Walker, D. (2011) In 'Black Tide,' filmmaker Joe Berlinger tracks BP oil disaster recovery. 28 July ( last accessed 9 August 2011)

Wilson, S. (2010) Excellent job on this documentary! Crude: customer review. 23 January ( last accessed 9 August 2011)

Wood, C. (2010) Documentarians should be accountable too. Shopfloor, 14 July

Other resources

For up to date information on the legal battle, including legal documents, see the Crude Movie website link and Chevron's website link.

Follow Crude the Movie on Twitter at!/crudethemovie

Watch an interview with Joe Berlinger at

Watch the Al Jazeera feature on the legal issues with Bananas!*/Dole and Crude/Chevron (starts around 13 minutes in, finishes around 24 minutes: last accessed 10 August 2011)

Compiled by Jesse Fratkin, Judy Hwang and Shay O'Brien edited by Daisy Livingston, Alice Goodbrook and Ian Cook (last updated August 2011). Page created for as part of the 'Anthropologies of global connection' course, Brown University.