For more than a decade, a group of Ecuadorian citizens, backed by American lawyers, have been suing the Chevron corporation for what they see as an environmental catastrophe wrought by Texaco’s operations in the Amazon rainforest. The plaintiffs claim that from the ’60s to the ’90s, Chevron/Texaco dumped 18 billion gallons of oil and toxic waste into a region the size of Rhode Island, poisoning the water and spawning an epidemic of cancer and other illnesses. Chevron counters that it followed a rigorously audited process when it closed up its oil pits, and that the Ecuadorian government granted it a release from all potential lawsuits. As one of Chevron’s local lawyers explains, this isn’t a case of contamination, but “industrial exploitation permitted by law.”
Joe Berlinger’s documentary Crude isn’t like most films about aggrieved, impoverished people rising up against corporate malefactors. Yes, Berlinger serves up enough shocking images of black soil, murky water, and dying children to convince nearly anyone that something’s wrong in rural Ecuador, and yes, the multiple Chevron spokespeople whom Berlinger interviews change their stance so much—arguing first that the water is fine in Ecuador, then adding that if it isn’t, that’s somebody else’s fault—that it’s hard to consider the corporation a victim. But in keeping with Berlinger’s excellent documentaries Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost, Crude is as concerned with the culture surrounding a legal action as it is in making a case. Crude is so crammed with facts and figures that it can be a little dizzying, but what’s more important is what Berlinger records between all the talking-head interviews and vérité footage.
Specifically, Berlinger makes Crude about the strategies of prosecuting a case like this. While Chevron seeks to keep the media coverage and legal action confined to Ecuador, where they have agreements already in place, the plaintiffs are busy landing their story in Vanity Fair (which draws the attention of celebrity environmentalist Trudie Styler), and trotting out charismatic, even-tempered local lawyer Pablo Fajardo. Berlinger doesn’t shy away from showing the American lawyers holding a meeting about whether they’re going to recoup their investment, and he doesn’t ignore the accusation that Ecuador’s own, less-deep-pocketed oil industry may be more liable than Chevron. And on repeated occasions, Berlinger shows how the plaintiffs shape the testimony of the people who become the public faces of their case. Crude is remarkably clear-eyed in the way it shows how even people on the right side of a cause only succeed if they’re willing to play a little dirty.