Photos courtesy of @radical.media
Review by Ryan Wilson

Crude takes an extended look at a class action lawsuit filed against the oil company Chevron (formerly known as Texaco) by 30,000 Ecuadorians, mostly compiled from the various indigenous tribes still living in the Amazon rain forest. They claim that for over three decades the oil company systematically contaminated the region, resulting in increased rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects and other multiple health disorders. The plaintiffs also argue that the oil operations in the region have negatively impacted their traditional way of life. Chevron, as you might suspect, calls the case a complete fabrication, perpetrated by "environmental con men" only seeking a portion of the company's billions.

The resulting film isn't so much a story as a complex debate about who gets to control the story. And since much of the film follows the lawyers for each side, what audiences really get is an inside view of the maneuvering necessary by each party to win. We see that Chevron's strategy is to delay the case indefinitely by moving it away from the United States to Ecuador, where the company can influence the process and drain their opponent's legal fund. We watch the plaintiff's attorneys counter these moves by raising awareness, raising money, and raising involvement within western law firms, who are also hoping to profit from the case.

It's the type of behind-the-scenes tale that makes one sick. But that's the point. We’re meant to feel the frustration as the case and both arguments drag on. Director Joe Berlinger is not an advocacy filmmaker, but rather cinema verite stylist. There's no central narration to spin the opposing arguments. Berlinger simply rolls his camera and presents his three years of footage; letting the two sides make their points.

Accounts from the native people are the most painful. One man recounts the story of his son dying less than twenty-four hours after drinking water from a polluted river. Another woman presents to us the dead chickens on her farm meant to be sold to pay for expensive medical treatments for her daughters. You can also expect to see some truly depressing footage of children playing on the pipelines, one month-old babies with intense skin rashes, and views of toxic spills that supposedly spread to the size of Rhode Island.

Yet just as you're ready to shake your fist at Chevron after every one of these moments, Berlinger cuts to Chevron’s attorneys and environmental scientist, who see the situation much differently. We learn that Chevron has not directly operated on the site since 1992, but rather Ecuador has, and that the country has been lax in their safety procedures. We also hear that the region’s water contamination may be more a result of fecal matter due to a poor sewage system than due to oil seepage.

But the most riveting scene in the film is when the hearings begin to take place. Rather than in a courtroom, we see the lawyers make their arguments at a site inspection, surrounded by community members holding pictures of loved ones who have died of disease. The usual arguments follow, but when the group takes a sample from underground and all see how literally compromised the land has become, the Chevron lawyers can only stand stone-faced and claim that there's no Chevron logo on the sample of oily earth.

A few specific characters also stand out. The plaintiffs are lead by Pablo Fajardo, a local 36-year-old lawyer who grew up in the territory. Chevron's attorneys try to portray him as a con man, but Berlinger follows him home so that we can see that he's nearly as poor as the people he represents. Even when he's given press and awards in the United States, he claims that it's misplaced and that the cameras should be covering his suffering neighbors. Fajardo's American consulting attorney is less attractive. His name is Steven Donziger, and he's willing to bend his ethics in order to gain ground. He has no trouble confronting a judge personally, spitting insults publicly at opposing attorneys, and coaching the testimony of his witnesses to sound more effective.

Berlinger's style of filmmaking also has the benefits of fluid time. A few unexpected twists expand the conversation of the film to include political and media involvement. During the filming, Ecuador elected a new president, Rafael Correa, a leftist economist, whose politics would seem to favor the plaintiffs. The lawsuit is also featured in Vanity Fair magazine, and we see how important this one article is for the case's exposure. Finally, rock-star Sting and his wife Trudie Styler become involved, adding the layer of celebrity, which can simultaneously help and hinder the cause.

If nothing else, Crude rids audiences of any easy answers, of any quick solutions to the environmental, political and human abuses it documents. The film is a learning experience concerning how dirty the systems of the world literally are. It may be a bitter pill for some to watch, but one that will no doubt stick with audiences and either frustrate them into cynicism or call them to action.

Crude is available on DVD, and will be screened on Earth Day, Thursday, April 22 at 11:15 a.m. at Delta College's Lecture Theater (G160). For full details on Delta College's Global Awareness and on the Earth Day Programs, visit Delta College's website at delta.edu

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. Produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010