Sunday, February 21, 2010

DVDebut: Joe Berlinger's CRUDE tackles Ecuador's (via Chevron) oil pollution

A wide canvas filled with visual and verbal sound bites, CRUDE, the 2009 documen-
tary produced & directed by Joe Berlinger (shown below), brings us up close to the 15-year battle going on be-
tween a giant cor-
poration and some Ecuadorian peasants over the petroleum spillage and seepage that appears to be causing horrendous death -- short-term by poison, long-term via cancer. Because the corporation in question began with Texaco, then took a detour via an Ecuadorian consortium, and is now Chevron, portion-
ing responsibility (not to mention bringing about justice) grows ever more difficult and frustrating.

Most viewers, myself included, will be sickened by the havoc caused the villagers and their livestock/animals that live near any of the many polluting sites (the shot of a duck dying is particularly effective) and then made even angrier by the transparent refusal of the flacks and lackeys of the corporation to accept responsibility. The villagers themselves are represented by lawyers from the US and elsewhere who, it seems, do their best to bring the matter to a close. But the foot-
dragging of Chevron (time and its frustrations, as well as vast amounts of money, are on the corporation's side) means that the problem simply goes on and on.

Mr. Berlinger (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost, Metallica) bounces about from place to place, continent to continent, in trying to tell this story. He manages it, all right, though I would have appreciated less repetition and more information:  How did the chief US lawyer Steven Donziger get involved in all this? Just how much was Ecuador itself responsible for during the interim tenure of the "consortium"?  Activist Pablo Fajardo's murdered brother, whom we hear about briefly, deserves a bit more attention. If you're going to bring something like this to the scenario, fill us in, please.

With the election of left-wing President Rafael Correa, the tide appears to turn, but this tide moves slowly. Then Sting and his wife Trudie Styler (shown above with a village family) become involved. For all that can be said about the nonsense of celebrities and their "causes," the one hands-on, positive thing we see by film's end are huge tanks employed in some villages to collect rainwater that will be safe to drink.  These arrive via the Styler/Sting connection.

We also see some of the natural beauty of the Amazon region, which is easily offset by the sickness and death in the middle of it all.  Crude is an ironic title in several ways. While it obviously refers to the oil at the center of the situation, it also describes the conduct of the oil companies involved, as well as the style of the documentary itself.  If it is preaching to the converted, of which I am one (big surprise: The New York Times loved the film; The New York Post hated it), at least the information it presents is interesting enough to perhaps draw in some newcomers and/or fence-sitters. 

Throughout the documentary, we witness both sides playing their PR cards:  "Try to use the word 'Texaco' as often as possible," lawyer Donziger advises Ms Styler at one point.  There's an even-
handedness at work here, even if the hand directing the film is clearly on the side of the downtrodden. The end credits actually suggest going to the Chevron web site to learn even more about the com-
pany's viewpoint on all this. 

The DVD of Crude, via First Run Features, arrives for sale and rental on Tuesday, Febru-
ary 23, and is filled with extras -- one of the more interesting of which shows the film's pre-
mier in Ecuador, where it is greeted, not surprisingly, with full houses and activist audiences.


Ray Errol Fox said...


Thought I'd come to your blog to catch up on some films I'd missed, but it's so consistently readable I have to return to it to catch up on some reviews I'm going to miss!

I'm scheduled to go to Ecuador in early April with five other journalists, so I'm particularly interested in seeing "Crude," as will they be. And thanks for cluing me into Trude and Sting's involvement--I should have thought of speaking to them before I left, but would have overlooked the natural connection if it weren't for you.

"Women in Trouble," "Phyllis and Howard"--Bravo! I'll be back for more.


James van Maanen, said...

Have fun on your April travels, Ray. Both the home care attendants for Bruce's mom are from Ecuador, and so we feel a particular connection to that little country. I'll be interested to learn what you learned, once you're back.