Interview: Joe Berlinger

Foreign Policy speaks with director Joe Berlinger about his latest film, Crude, which follows the story of the "Amazon Chernobyl" case.

Courtesy of Radical Media
Courtesy of Radical Media
Courtesy of Radical Media

 

Before American missionaries came to the small Ecuadorian village of Lago Agrio in the 1950s, it was a place virtually unknown to the outside world. Now, 37 years after the U.S. company Texaco came to drill for oil, the village and the surrounding area is a festering site of contamination, a literal "death zone" at the center of a $27 billion legal battle with one of the world's largest oil companies.

 

Before American missionaries came to the small Ecuadorian village of Lago Agrio in the 1950s, it was a place virtually unknown to the outside world. Now, 37 years after the U.S. company Texaco came to drill for oil, the village and the surrounding area is a festering site of contamination, a literal “death zone” at the center of a $27 billion legal battle with one of the world’s largest oil companies.

The lawsuit is still in flux, and the stakes are high: The plaintiffs — 30,000 indigenous Amazonians — are suing for the environmental cleanup of a polluted area roughly the size of Rhode Island. They think the oil contamination has led to mass death and disease. Lawyers for the defense argue that Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2001, no longer operates oil wells in Ecuador and that the cleanup of its drilling sites met with the requirements of Ecuadorean law. The case, they say, is nothing more than a ploy by the plaintiffs’ “Manhattan lawyers” to cash in on big “juicy checks.” Chevron also maintains that the increase in cancer and various skin diseases in the area is the result of “poor sanitation” and “has nothing to do with oil.”

This David and Goliath tale is the subject of director Joe Berlinger’s newly released film, Crude, in which he explores this epic 16-year-old legal battle with all the excitement and flair of a John Grisham thriller. Berlinger, whose other works include Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, was approached by Steven Donziger, the lead American attorney for the plaintiffs, who eventually convinced Berlinger to visit the site and meet the people there. The filmmaker saw a chance to tell a story he thinks addresses a “moral responsibility” that transcends even the best legal argument.

FP: Have the people of Lago Agrio seen Crude?

JB: I have not gone to show it to them, but I have [given permission to] community leaders to screen the movie … free of charge all over Ecuador. We had a really wonderful screening [at the] Ecuadorean film festival. There was a line around the block. They jammed 1,400 people into the theater.

It was the best screening — in terms of emotional response — I have ever had anywhere, anytime. Pablo [Fajardo, the leading attorney for the plaintiffs] received a 15-minute standing ovation. People kept coming up to me to express their gratitude. The vast majority of them — Quito [residents who live] middle -class lives — had no idea that [the devastation] was taking place. It took an American filmmaker for them to become aware about what was going on in their own jungle.



FP: In Crude we see then-newly elected President Rafael Correa visit Lago Agri0. He is outraged and champions the plaintiffs’ cause. Has his support continued?

JB: It is an interesting turn of events for the plaintiffs. [Correa was the] first president of the region to visit the affected area and to show sympathy for the plaintiffs. Correa is a controversial figure in [Ecuador], written off as a left-wing Chávez protégé, anti-American, anti-American big business. Some of this is true, but it is precisely [the] cozy relationship between right-wing Latin American governments and big business that has been responsible for a lot of environmental abuse in extractive industries, and that is kind of the larger theme of the film.

Correa continues to support the case, in that he is aware of it. He is pro-plaintiff, [but] he is not meddling in the case, as Chevron has accused him of. Correa is trying to walk a more environmentally aware line. [He] is trying to, with mixed results, [to] inaugurate [a new] program where instead of drilling and extracting the oil from the ground, he will sell [the oil] to people who want to keep it in the ground. [It’s] a novel way of dealing with having a resource that has economic value [while] trying to preserve the environment.

­­­­FP: What was your relationship with Chevron like while you were making the film?

JB: The first two years of the film I did not reach out to them. I did not disclose who I was simply for safety reasons. We were in a dangerous, somewhat lawless part of the world. These oil towns are like Wild West towns with a lot of crime. We were at times a mile and a half from the Colombian border, where the FARC guerrillas are very active, where drug runners are very active.

I am not saying that Chevron executives in the United States would ever order a “hit” on a filmmaker; I am not that jaded or cynical. However, there is a history of these cases in places like Nigeria where people, who care about the chain of employment based on the local interest of the larger multinationals’ interests, take actions into their own hands and things happen. …. Our hotel was ransacked on one occasion; we thought we were being followed. I am not making accusations — that could [have been] drug runners.

[Since I contacted Chevron,] our relationship has been interesting. Initially, they did not believe [I was trying] to do a fair and balanced film.   

I tried to get them to let me do other things like sit in on their meetings.  I said, “Hey, take me on the toxi-tour” —  everyone calls it the toxi-tour, including Chevron — “from the Chevron perspective and I would love to be on the ground with you at these sites, and you explain to me whose responsibility this is and how this happened.” They denied that. Literally up until the [eleventh] hour they were friendly but not granting any interviews.

[The Sundance Film Festival deadline] motivated them, and [Chevron] agreed to do interviews. It was their idea to provide me with Ricardo Raez Vega, the legal architect of this case, and provide me with Sarah MacMillan [Chevron’s chief environmental scientist].

When I was setting up my shot, another crew arrived and started setting up gear. [Chevron] had booked another crew to film me filming the interviews so they would have a record. They did not mention it beforehand. They said they would like to have a record of the interview. It was not necessarily an intimidation [tactic], but their way of saying, “We have a record of this; do not manipulate this.” I have filmed all sorts of people in all walks of life, but I have never been filmed doing my interviews before.

FP: What has the film taught you about this sort of lawsuit?

JB: I think the legal structures we have are inadequate for addressing these large-scale environmental and humanitarian crises. It has taken 17 years to get to this point and it’s probably going to take another 10 or 15 years before there is a resolution. There has to be better ways of resolving these conflicts. In the Exxon Valdez situation, it took almost 20 years for the fine to be paid by them; they delayed and delayed and it only got paid off late last year to people who were waiting for compensation for lost livelihood. They waited 20 years for that payment, and then in the [eleventh] hour it was reduced by 80 percent. So there has to be a better way to resolve these conflicts. The people who are the alleged or supposed beneficiaries wait a lifetime for relief. And in this instance, in the Amazon, there is poisoned water and massive pollution, which is unacceptable.

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