Troubled Waters

berlinger’s crude is a slick film

troubledThe Amazon jungle is a dangerous place. You might assume the toothy beasts lurking in the river ways—anacondas, caiman, bull sharks—would pose the greatest threat. But a new problem has gurgled up out of the water: crude oil. Lots of it.

Joe Berlinger’s new documentary Crude highlights what the media has referred to relentlessly as a “David and Goliath story.” It’s some of the world’s poorest people (Amazonian Indians) up against one of the world’s most powerful companies (Chevron) in an exhaustively drawn-out legal battle. For decades, Texaco (now owned by Chevron) drilled in the Ecuadorian Amazon — and the cost of this extraction for the region’s native people is now being considered in the courtroom.

The film’s narrative portrays Chevron as a hulking, conniving, and villainous conglomerate. And its opponent — thousands strong, but positively puny in comparison —is led by a motley legal ensemble: an earnest and smallish Ecuadorian lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, and his hard-line American counterpart, Steven Donziger. Both have been locked in litigation with Chevron for sixteen years. And with gritted teeth and empty ring fingers, they muster forward against the tide of an oil-drenched river that continues to erode at the well-being of an overlooked people.

But the class-action lawsuit isn’t completely clear-cut—in fact, it’s almost as sullied as the region’s oil-saturated soil itself . Donziger is a legal animal. At the Chevron shareholders meeting, he brings along two of the affected Ecuadorians and carefully manicures an inflammatory speech to be delivered to the unwitting attendees. In this scene, he is precise and brisk—almost cold. While his cause is just—and he knows it—his motivation is never made wholly clear.

Chevron suggests that the entire legal venture is a scam, a cash-making endeavor backed by a deep-pocketed Manhattan legal firm aiming to shake down a company that stopped mining oil long before the suit was filed. Chevron points to PetroEcuador, a notoriously environmentally unfriendly and poorly run national company. Chevron claims that Texaco cleaned up after itself, that the water samples are potable, and that the Ecuadorians’ rampant illnesses are the result of their own poor sanitation.

What the film does well is the reality-show-confessional type snippets of the Chevron PR machine. The environmental scientist who insists that the water meets all standards is compellingly juxtaposed with a shot of water, shimmering and slick with oil on the surface.

As the issue slides more and more into an outright convoluted affair—even Sting and his wife get themselves into the muck at one point— Berlinger manages to hack through the jungle of characters and legal bureaucracy with his digital camera effectively. He even captures some droll conversations of Donziger and his Ecuadorian compatriots about culture differences (he’s a gringo, etc.).

But while the legal battle is engrossing enough—and it is the main focus of his documentary—Berlinger’s most telling moments are with the people affected. While the diluted star power of Sting’s wife and the wily interactions between lawyers are certainly noteworthy, the most important part of the film is the father whose son died from bathing, the mother whose 19-year-old daughter has liver cancer (and who can’t raise chickens to pay for chemotherapy because the foul die), and the writhing and reddish newborns whose skin has blown up from being washed with river water.

The issue is complicated and convoluted and murky, but these people’s pain is clear. It’s when Berlinger exposes these nuances that Crude feels anything but.