Crude: An Interview with Filmmaker Joe Berlinger

By Ken Krayeske and Cross-posted at

Suppose that an oil catastrophe more than 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez happened and no one noticed?

Well it did. In the Ecuadorian rain forest. For decades, Texaco
is alleged to have dumped oil in pits across Ecuador. What would be
fenced off superfund sites in the United States are stinky open oil
pits that indigenous peoples live next to in Ecuador.

After first seeing the catastrophe, American documentarian Joe
Berlinger was so aghast and ashamed of what Texaco did that he decided
to film it. Those first clips turned into a 104 minute feature film
called Crude, which documents the pollution and the class-action
lawsuit brought by 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians against Texaco, and
now its successor Chevron.

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger will appear at Real Art Ways in
Hartford, Friday night, November 20, as part of the Hartford premiere
of Crude. He will stay afterwards for a question and answer session.

Mr. Berlinger is crisscrossing the country promoting the new
movie. He took a few moments Monday, November 16 to discuss the film.

Q: Crude spans years and many locations. It seems like it took a lot of persistence to make.

Berlinger: It took a lot of dedication. It was a really hard
film to make. Making any film is an achievement. I hate it when
reviewers flippantly rip things to shreds. I would like to see
reviewers make a film. They need to show some respect that something
got done.

This film was difficult to make. We filmed in brutal
conditions. We were filming at the equator, and the 120 degree
equatorial heat was oppressive. We filmed next to these massive
pollution sites that would be fenced off in the U.S. These were
superfund sites we could walk right up to and have a trial next to.

By the end of the day, you would have a wicked headache and
your eyes would be watering. We filmed a mile and half from the
Columbian border. There was a big dispute over the natural resources
between Columbia and Ecuador, and it was militarized.

And of course that border dispute brings a criminal element, plus FARC
guerrillas, drug runners and so on. I was concerned for my and my
crew's safety. It was a malaria zone, too.

The worst thing was whenever we slept overnight in these indigenous
villages, we would get these chigger bites. Chiggers are bugs that
crawl into your feet and lay eggs. I still have scars that get

Q: So why do the film?

Berlinger: I felt it was a moral imperative when I was shown
this disaster. I was embarrassed to be an American that an American
company was involved in this.

I am not smart enough to figure out the lawsuit. The film's job
is to present both sides. The reason I am comfortable with that - there
is a moral bankruptcy to the whole affair. The lawsuit debates whether
there was fraudulent remediation and whether the release Texaco signed
with the Ecuadorian government prevents a third party from suing.

I can't sort through those issues and come up with an
affirmative conclusion about the suit. But there is no moral
justification for what Texaco did, even if they feel they have
protected themselves from it.

It was shocking to me. One of the big failings of crude is its two

dimensional nature. The thing that I'll never forget, and there are
a lot of arresting images, I will never forget the foul odor of the
region and the foul odor of people's water.

When you see the pollution with the naked eye, it is far worse.
When you are looking at it from a 360-degree viewpoint, it is shocking
to see what they have done to that part of the world.

People lived in harmony with nature for millennia. The
Ecuadorian Amazon survived the last Ice Age. There are species yet to
be counted there. Yet it is under tremendous assault not just from oil
companies, but all extractive industries.

Q: How did you hear about it?

Berlinger: Attorney Steven Donziger, who stars in the film,
contacted me about it. Initially a lot of red flags went up why this is
not a film I should get in to. I'm a cinema verite producer. I like to
film things in the present tense. I was concerned about the past state
of action.

I was concerned how I was going to raise money. I was concerned
about it being in Spanish. How am I going to tell this story about 13
years gone by?

On the second day of my trip, I went to Cofan village and I saw
people eating canned tuna by the river. It was utterly shocking to me
because all the fish in the river were dead or diseased.

I had no idea where it was going to go. I didn't expect it to
be a big film. My goal was I feel guilty, I feel terrible. But I felt a
moral duty to start filming and see where it would go. I felt like I
had a responsibility.

I had a cliché moment when I came home from my first trip after
seeing the canned fish. I went back to my nice house in Westchester,
tucked my children in bed, took a drink from my tap water, looked at
the water, looked at myself in mirror, and said, "How can I look at
myself again if I don't go back and try to do what I can to help?"

I sort of felt like the universe was tapping me on the
shoulder, and saying you are elected, you have to bear witness to this.
In my mind I didn't mean to make a big film at first. On subsequent
trips, when I met Pablo Fajardo (the Ecuadorian lawyer), he is a
natural hero. He has an aura when he walks into a room. Here is someone
I can sink my teeth into in a narrative draw.

I was funding it myself for the first year. After about four
trips, I had enough to put together fundraising trailer. I was raise
through private equity money 75 percent of the funding, and then I got
25 percent from Netflix, which was experimenting with investing in
productions, which they no longer do. I happened to catch them at the
right time.

Q: Did you ever have any existential doubt that the film couldn't be made?

Berlinger: The first time I woke up and had chigger bites, I
wondered what I was doing. We were being followed, we had our hotel
rooms broken into, we had stuff stolen. But deep in the core of my gut,
I felt like I was bearing witness to something and bringing a story to
the world that needed to be told. I was down with the mission.

I fell in love with these indigenous people. They are the
nicest, most innocent, sweetest people who have suffered, first at
hands of government, then at the hands of oil exploration.

I learned a lesson making this film, as a relatively affluent
white person in this country, I never thoughta bout the plight of
indigenous people. But they have been devastated by Western ideas,
reduced to a shadow of their former selves.

I saw a continuum I had never seen before - for the last 600 or
700 years, I realized white people have treated indigenous people
horribly, and we never talk about it. Starting with the Spanish, and
then our treatment of American Indian and continuing up until today,
there is a connection I had

never seen before.

The behavior of multinational companies is the late 20th century
and early 21st century continuation of this, this disregard for people
in their own environment. Our desire for cheap oil has an impact. Our
unbridled consumerism, people are paying a price for it. We need to be
less selfish in this world.

Q: The scenes of Pablo Fajardo's house are shocking, because he has nothing.

Berlinger: But he has everything because he believes in his cause and he has the love of his people.

Q: In your press packet, you include tons of great reviews from
all the A-List American newspapers and websites. But I feel like asking
them: Where were you?

Berlinger: Film reviewers not supposed to be covering news
stories. One of the points of making the film was that it has gotten
very little coverage. I am not going to knock the institutions that
gave me good reviews. But I put my life at risk because I was stunned
at the lack of coverage for this story.

One of the major themes of the film is that uncomfortable
intersection between celebrity culture and social activism. I am not
knocking Sting and Trudi personally. I focused on their activities in
fact because the only tangible benefit the indigenous people have
received is the fresh water.

But this film is observing why is it we need celebrities to get involved in the story before we pay attention to it?

I am not advocating how the lawsuit should turn out. I am
advocating for the help that is needed to clean up the region and bring
relief to people.

And on the one hand this an advocacy film for the people, it is
a portrait of advocacy, the camera pulls back self reflectively and
examines what advocates have to do to move their case forward, they
have to get celebrity involvement. Why is it that things don't get
covered until celebrities get involved?

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Buzz it. And thanks to Ken Krayeske for the permission to cross-post this. :)