Skip to main content

Oil Change: Joe Berlinger's 'Crude' Awakening

By David Becker

From Joe Berlinger's <em>Crude</em>. Photo: David Gilbert

Editor's Note: Crude will make its broadcast debut September 22, 2011, on the Sundance Channel. Below is an article from the Fall 2009 issue of Documentary.

Joe Berlinger is in court again. The filmmaker, who along with his on-again/off-again creative partner, Bruce Sinofsky, famously chronicled courtroom dramas in their films Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost, is once again at the heart of a legal drama. But this time, the courtroom is very different; in fact, it's not a room at all. It's a jungle.

"I didn't see this as my next film," says Berlinger of Crude, which is being released theatrically through First Run Features in September. In 2005, Berlinger had a meeting with Steven Donziger, a lawyer representing indigenous Ecuadorian tribes who were several years into a lawsuit against the American oil company Chevron. The tribes alleged that their land, water and culture had been damaged by the policies of Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001. The company no longer operates oil wells in Ecuador but allegedly left behind a legacy of polluted waterways and land the size of Rhode Island.

As Donziger petitioned Berlinger to make a film about the case, red flags went off in the filmmaker's mind. "Who are the characters? What's the unfolding action?" Berlinger asked himself. It sounded to him more like a 60 Minutes piece than the follow-up to the previous Berlinger-Sinofsky documentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.  "I'm not an advocacy filmmaker," Berlinger recalled telling Donziger. "And I'm probably the wrong guy to make this film."

But Donziger persisted, as lawyers often do, and Berlinger saw an opportunity to visit the Amazon for the first time. A short time later, he was on a plane to Ecuador.

On the second day of the trip, the canoe Berlinger was traveling in stopped at an indigenous Cofán village. He and his guides got out of the canoe and saw a few members of the tribe preparing lunch by the river that had sustained them for centuries. But the tribe members were not gutting tuna they had caught; they were scooping it out of a large metal can. "It appeared to come from the Ecuadorian equivalent of Costco," Berlinger recalls. "That deeply spoke to me." He began to set aside some of his concerns  "and think a different way" about this film.

"Mid-week, I met Pablo," Berlinger explains, referring to Pablo Fajardo, who would become the central character of Crude. A native of the region, Fajardo went to law school with the help of the Catholic Church, came back home and took on Chevron in his first case. Suddenly, Berlinger had the "David" in this David vs. Goliath story. "Pablo is a transfixing character," Berlinger acknowledges.

"The universe was tapping me on the shoulder," the filmmaker continues. "How could I look in the mirror, knowing people are dying here, and not make this film?" 

Without funding, distribution or even sure this story would ever become a film, Berlinger started shooting. Not since he and Sinofsky, at the time working for Maysles Films, started shooting their first feature, Brother's Keeper, had Berlinger taken such a leap of filmmaking faith.

For this film, Berlinger would be working without Sinofsky. Their partnership had reached a low point just before the filming of Some Kind of Monster. At that time, Berlinger didn't think they would work together again. But filming month after month of the heavy metal icons in group therapy sessions forced Berlinger and Sinofsky to confront their own issues. The result was a revived partnership, along with an understanding that they would work independently when it suited them. 

Berlinger returned to Ecuador for the evidentiary phase of the lawsuit. Unlike anything he'd ever seen before, these hearings would be held far from the confines of a courtroom; they were happening deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle.

"Creatively, they were fantastic," Berlinger says of the site visits. "But physically, they were very challenging." He and his two-person crew endured 120-degree heat in a malaria zone, amid the ever-present smell of gasoline.

These were the conditions, of course, that the indigenous people that Fajardo represented had to live with every day. Like all his experiences with vérité filmmaking, Berlinger found that the process of shooting Crude was impacting him personally. "What I love about vérité is that you get dropped into this world and you change as a person," he notes.

Berlinger found himself gaining a deeper understanding of indigenous people and their struggles. "We may know intellectually we aren't treating people right," he maintains, "but this film deeply made me aware of extreme inequities of the world." Still, it was a year and a half into filming before he felt confident the material would become a film. 

Crude hits theaters at a time when another film about an American corporation's alleged wrongdoing in the developing world, Bananas! (Dir.: Fredrik Gertten), is creating a significant amount of controversy and self-reflection in the documentary community.  The film chronicles a lawsuit filed against the Dole Corporation on behalf of workers who were allegedly made sterile from chemicals used on banana plantations. Bananas! was to premiere in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, but was pulled from competition after Dole Food Corporation threatened a lawsuit against the filmmaker, the festival and Film Independent, the festival's parent company, if the film were screened. The festival did screen the film, as a case study examining the relationship between "documentary filmmaking and ‘the truth.'"

Despite the recent controversy surrounding Bananas!, Berlinger is not concerned that Crude will spark a similar legal challenge. "My filming strategy dovetails with safe legal aspect," he notes. "Each side should have their say. I want people to judge for themselves [which side is right]." Crude features arguments from Chevron's lawyers in the field as well as interviews with company spokespeople. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, its even-handed approach, Crude is a powerful advocate for Fajardo and the indigenous people of Ecuador. The film features the stories of a sick teenager and her mother, who travel many hours for cancer treatment; babies with unexplained skin rashes; and people literally living on top of oil pits. Regardless of who is held legally responsible for the conditions highlighted in Crude, it's clear that something should be done to improve the situation.

To that effect, Berlinger is using screenings of the film to raise money that will provide fresh water for people in the affected villages. One of the characters who appears late in the film is Trudy Styler, who along with her husband, the rock star Sting, founded Rainforest Foundation Fund UK. Styler travels to the heart of the polluted region and then returns with fresh water tanks in one of the films most uplifting sequences. Screenings to date have raised over $300,000 for water tanks to be sent to the region. 

Berlinger hopes that the film will inspire people to get involved, donate time and money to the cause, and "think twice next time they pull up to a gas station." He summed up the theme of the film in a familiar, simple, yet timeless way: "Treat people the way we expect to be treated."

Crude is a moving amalgam of international politics, legal drama and grassroots activism that exposes years of pollution and disregard for indigenous people and their land. As made clear by the clean drinking water now available to many indigenous families, the film is already making an impact.


David Becker recently produced the feature-length documentary Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie, about the famous hippie and humanitarian Wavy Gravy.