Sunday, January 25, 2009


2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★

I like a documentary that makes me angry. I appreciate the experience of discovering an injustice that kindles inside me the passionate flames of outrage and the urge to take action. And if you’re a documentary filmmaker looking for an easy mark these days, try Big Oil.

Crude is about a 13-year-old lawsuit by 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorans against Chevron, one of the world’s petroleum giants. The plaintiffs, Indians from the Cofan tribe, claim that for about 30 years Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron) willfully employed irresponsible drilling practices that had a devastating effect on the river, the environment and the health of the native people. There is enough evidence and testimony presented in the movie to convince viewers that this is a massive environmental tragedy that, if not for corporate greed, could easily have been prevented.

(For those with deeper than a cinematic interest, when oil comes from a drilled well it is mixed with water. These must be separated, leaving a highly toxic watery byproduct. Standard practice is to return this residue to the hole from whence it came. In the Ecuadoran jungle, where oversight was nonexistent, it is alleged that Chevron took the easier and cheaper route and simply discharged the sledge into the river water.)

Perhaps the only hero of the conflict is Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. A native Ecuadoran and former manual laborer, Fajardo put himself through school, never dreaming he would be on center stage for the largest environmental lawsuit in history (the current recommendation is $27 billion in damages).

Director Joe Berlinger manages to tell this compelling story while still maintaining balance. This is not simply a story of bad Chevron and good natives. There are plenty of other players that muddy the water, including a slick class action law firm that stands to realize an extraordinary payday, Ecuador President Rafael Correa, rock star Sting and his wife and scientists from both sides. Throw into the mix some unusual legal venues and staged publicity stunts at Chevron shareholder meetings and there are sufficient theatrics to hold your attention.

There are two problems with Crude. The first is that there is little an average guy can do once the movies makes him upset. I sent an email to Chevron ([email protected]). Pretty lame effort, I admit. The other glaring weakness of the film is that there is no conclusion to the story. In fact, the legal conflict may not even be half over. For perspective, even after a judgment was rendered it took 17 years for the Exxon Valdez payments to be made—and at a fraction of the judgment price. This Chevron case, which was first filed in 1993, may take decades to reach its final conclusion. And so the movie simply ends, although with fitting imagery of the Cofan Indians drifting down the river, their future uncertain.



Blogger Anna Kay said...

I am so glad people are starting to pay attention to this. It’s unbelievable that Chevron doesn’t want to clean up that mess! There is a very good blog about it:
Also, here is an amazing account of the toxic mess that Texaco and Chevron have created in the Amazon rainforest. This is a Bloomberg article that appeared couple days ago. You will want to read this. Here’s the link:

8:48 PM  

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