Mark Dery | Reviews

Paradise Fouled

Film still from Crude: The Real Price of Oil (2009)

Joe Berlinger’s last documentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), chronicled the making of the multiplatinum heavy metal band’s appropriately titled St. Anger, a record whose difficult birth was complicated by anger-management issues from hell. Trailing the band from the studio to group-therapy sessions, Berlinger gave us a cringe-tastic look at headbangers on the verge of a nervous breakdown — just some Alpha dudes getting in touch with their feelings, trying to make sense of a bro-mance gone sour. (Not that that’s gay or anything, right?) The result is pure comedy gold, Ozzie’s idea of Masculinity Studies 101: Iron John meets Iron Man. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster sold a million DVDs in its first year.

Berlinger’s new documentary, Crude, is about another kind of monster, this one grimmer and more emotionally scarifying by far. The movie — whose New York run begins today at IFC Center — spotlights an environmental atrocity that, until recently, had gone almost unnoticed by the U.S. media: the American oil giant Texaco’s alleged devastation of a 1,700-square-mile swathe of Ecuadorean rainforest, a “death zone” the size of Rhode Island whose poisoned waters, ubiquitous cancers and mysterious lesions have led some to call it the “Amazonian Chernobyl.”

In 1967, Texaco began drilling in the Ecuadorean Amazon, dubbing the inaugural well and the town that sprang up around it Lago Agrio, or Sour Lake, after the Texas city where the company was founded. The name proved portentous. The class-action lawsuit filed in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorean plaintiffs, many of them indigenous people, charged Texaco with intentionally dumping 18 billion gallons of oil and toxic waste into the Amazon. Imagine a spill bigger than the Exxon Valdez, in the middle of a jungle whose pristine river and abundant wildlife made it the next best thing to Eden — a “paradise” where “life reigned,” in the words of one Secoya tribesman. Although Texaco struck a deal with the Ecuadorean government in 1995, agreeing to environmental remediation of the affected sites, Ecuador claims that the company swept its toxic problems under the rug, simply burying the leaking wells. In 2008, the Ecuadorean government slapped a fraud indictment on two Chevron attorneys (Chevron acquired Texaco, and its legal headaches, in 2001) and seven of its own former officials. Chevron decries the judgment.

A man from the Cofán tribe remembers the arrival of the first Texaco helicopter (“We didn’t know what this beast was called”). Soon, oil fouled the stretch of river his tribe fished and drank from. His first son “stopped developing six months after being born,” then died. His second son started vomiting blood after drinking from the polluted river. “He got sick at 10 a.m. and the next day, at 2 in the afternoon, he was dead.”

Poster for Crude

Not your cup of first-world guilt on a Friday night, when Mad Men beckons from the Netflix queue and the last thing you want to think about is your carbon footprint? Then think again, because Crude is spellbinding stuff, combining the courtroom cut-and-thrust of a legal thriller with the moral outrage that lights the fuse of every rousing call for social justice. Berlinger decided to make a documentary about Aguinda v. Chevron-Texaco just as the case was entering its evidentiary phase, in 2005, a made-for-prime-time human drama that Crude exploits to the fullest. Berlinger wrings high emotion from judicial inspections of allegedly contaminated sites deep in the jungle. Technical experts pull up core samples of toxic glop and brandish them, dripping, before the judge and a rapt crowd; the charismatic young lawyer for the plaintiffs, a former oilfield worker and local hero named Pablo Fajardo, squares off with Chevron’s corporate counsels, each side fitting this new piece of evidence into its mosaic of guilt or innocence.

The movie ends in the present, with a decision still pending. The American attorney for the plaintiffs, Steven Donziger, believes that Chevron, the world’s fifth largest corporation, is using its practically bottomless legal fund to run down the clock, trying to “sap our resources, sap our will.” Litigation may drag on for another decade, the movie concludes. Meanwhile, Chevron is launching a counteroffensive in the image war, using its YouTube channel to accuse the Ecuadorean judge presiding over its lawsuit of corruption, buying ad space on Google to air a superslick faux-news clip designed to pass as a CNN report, down to the narration by former CNN correspondent Gene Randall.

Crude is, among other things, about the eloquence of images; the power of things beheld. Although Berlinger insists, in the “Director’s Statement” included in the movie’s publicity packet, that “the best way to serve truth is to explore a situation from all sides without overtly revealing the filmmaker’s viewpoint, allowing each audience member to come up with his or her own conclusion about the events they are witnessing onscreen,” the movie's visual rhetoric is powerful and persuasive. In one scene, Chevron’s defense counsel harangues a crowd, telling its members that the plaintiff’s American counsel is a fat cat, only in it for the money. Berlinger cuts to a blind accordionist nearby, his melancholy wheezing a sly commentary on the windy mendacity of the lawyer’s song, his sightless squint an allusion to the lawyer’s insistence that we turn a blind eye on Chevron’s toxic sins.

An ice-cool Chevron scientist flatly rejects claims that oil production is to blame for the region’s perceived spike in cancer rates. But the lead-in to her rebuttal is a creepy close-up of a duck in a villager’s yard, sick, maybe dying, its webbed feet twitching convulsively. Nearby, a weeping mother tells us about her daughter, gnawed to the bone by cancer. The chickens she’d hoped would pay for the girl’s treatment are dead, killed, she says, by contamination from the oil-production station 10 meters from her house. The camera follows her son into the brush, where he tosses the limp birds unceremoniously into a thicket. Then comes the Chevron scientist, coolly insisting that “Chevron takes those kinds of allegations very seriously,” but that there’s “absolutely no evidence that there’s an increase in cancer death rates.” To be sure, she concedes, “There are people there that are sick,” but “it’s a very poor region.” Cut to a close-up of an investigator pulling a core sample out of the ground. The crowd leans in. In a rubber-gloved hand, he squishes the soil sample; oily muck, black as vomito negro, squelches between his fingers.

Drill, baby, drill. Until you hit the truth.

Posted in: Ecology, Health + Safety, Media, Science , Social Good

Comments [8]

Thank you Bill for pointing our attention to this documentary. This kind of atrocities are surfacing everywhere in films/web/blogs, and the corporations are aggressive in squashing anyone and anything that sheds light onto the truth of their corporate behaviour. My studio created the identity system and communications for BANANAS!, 'a documentary film about the disturbing global politics of the banana, the incredible gap between our world and what we call the third world, scientific choices, corporate behaviour, and about the very food we eat.' The director is being sued and the LA film festival and their sponsors were threatened with 'Cease or Decease' and they were so scared that they pulled the documentary from competition and abandoned the director. You can follow the entire trail of attacks from Dole here: http://www.bananasthemovie.com/
Rebeca Mendez

The documentry is so nice to have such informations
Columbus web design

This looks like my kind of documentary, I'll be checking it out for sure. This is a problem everyone should understand.
web page designer

great documentary nice information

I love documentary movies and jealous of anyone who lives in New York to be able to go to the IFC center!
Documentary Film is so powerful that It can really bring attention to issues like these.

I will probably check this out asap!

Gotta love old school design

Hy hope u all fine and enjoying ur life..I I found this site very informative...... Through this site i wanna tell u about my site which is about games..
plz check it out u ll have fun...
Thanks u.

Ooh - this is something I'll be watching. I've never heard of it before.
Ape on the Moon

Jobs | July 17