Joe Berlinger has spent the past 18 years creating some of the greatest legal documentaries ever made with his creative partner Bruce Sinofsky (as well as a much-regretted Blair Witch Project sequel, from which he requested his name removed, and Some Kind of Monster, the greatest rock-doc ever made). Paradise Lost (1996) focused on a group of Memphis teenage metal-heads convicted of a brutal child murder, in a case where the prosecution’s main evidence was that the teens liked Metallica a little too much. The duo’s breakout film, Brother’s Keeper (1992), was a fascinating profile of a family of three elderly, reclusive, destitute and illiterate rural New York brothers suspected of murdering a fourth.
Now Berlinger returns with the self-directed and produced Crude, in which he depicts the struggle of indigenous Ecuadorians poisoned by extreme pollution left behind by petroleum giant Texaco (which has since merged into Chevron). In the early 1990s, 30,000 Ecuadorians launched a class action lawsuit against Chevron who had operated oil facilities in the country since the sixties. Chevron spent millions attempting to have the trial relocated to Ecuador instead of American soil and won that battle.
Soon after the relocation of the trial, a fresh Ecuadorian lawyer named Pablo Fajardo — who grew up in the afflicted region — took the reigns of the case. It was his first. The resulting documentary follows Fajardo and an American trial lawyer, Steven Donziger, who is directing the case for a law firm that hopes to get a cut of the settlement money (valued at $26 billion in damages).
Crude also depicts how residents living in the areas surrounding, and on top of former drilling sites, which were supposedly cleaned to code before Texaco left, have developed a great deal of health issues. For instance, cancer rates and birth defects have skyrocketed and children exposed to a tainted water supply — which even tastes like gasoline — have become covered with sores.
As dramatic as those stories are, many of the film’s most compelling moments come from the legal battles. Equador’s legal system has a Wild West quality not seen in North America. Lawyers spar during field trips to contamination sites, in front of judges, crowds of local people and guards armed with AK-47s. Texaco’s representatives come off as cold and conniving, rattling off legalese technicalities, while Pablo Fajardo implores everyone to just look at the oil-blackened soil, open sludge pits and sick children Texaco left behind. Such moments outdo the court scenes in any Law and Order I’ve ever seen.
Berlinger’s film, like many politically charged documentaries in the same vein, attempts to paint an objective picture of the situation. But the cards clearly appear to be stacked against Texaco here. Their only representative that doesn’t come across as a completely inhuman capitalistic scumbag is a scientist for the company with a deadpan stare and monotone delivery. However, her account of the situation in Equador — that nothing unusual is happening — contrasts starkly with everything we see there. However, there is also the sense — and this may be a biased view given my own perception of mammoth corporations — that it the oil companies that are monstrous, while Pablo Fajardo, and even the American trial lawyer, are heroic.
Biased or not, Crude is a very compelling documentary, one that exposes a tragedy in a region riddled with similar stories of exploitation. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s certainly worth everyone’s time.