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.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Cove

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★ ★
One of the often overlooked pleasures of Sundance is taking a flyer on an unknown and unpublicized movie and entering with no expectations. That’s how I stumbled into The Cove, a documentary about the dolphin market, which is centered in Japan.

Funded by internet billionaire Jim Clark (Netscape, Web MD) and helmed by veteran National Geographic photographer and first-time movie director Louie Psihoyos, The Cove is a multi-dimensional movie that defies a simple description (which may be its biggest weakness). We learn about the intelligence and beauty of dolphins. We are introduced to Richard O’Barry, the former trainer of Flipper, who is now an eco-activist who is committed to protecting dolphins around the world and returning them to the oceans. We are exposed to the center of the international market in Taiji, Japan, where every year 23,000 dolphins are captured and sold, some to be trained for entertainment venues and the rest brutally and secretly slaughtered and sold for meat (usually mislabeled as whale meat, since there is little demand for dolphin meat). We learn about the toxic nature of dolphin meat due to high mercury levels, a fact that is covered up by the Japanese government despite the severe health risks, including ghastly birth defects.

And finally, we tag along on a dangerous and clandestine mission by a small Mission Impossible like force, led by Psihoyos, to provide the first recorded evidence of what is happening in Taiji. At this point, the movie takes on the feel of a real-life thriller, as the group is followed and repeatedly questioned by police (O’Barry is well known there and universally hated in the town and by the industry), and harassed by the local fisherman, who follow them around, get in their faces, aim cameras at them and aggressively herd them away from restricted areas. It would feel like an intense drama if it wasn’t so very real. There are world-class free divers (down as low as 88 meters on one breath!), night-vision goggles, thermal-activated cameras camouflaged in rocks, underwater microphones, night-time chase scenes and more.

The net effect is a very compelling film that is both disturbing and beautiful, entertaining and arresting. It is one small element in the depletion of worldwide oceans, but a noble effort to raise awareness at how we are failing as stewards of a precious resource, and how international politics allows this to continue.

We should seek after movies that force us to deal with the ethics of our actions. The Cove is such a movie. For more information, go to (Oceanic Preservations Society) and It would be good to get involved.

Notes from Sundance
Psihoyos, O’Barry and others from the team attended the screening. They spoke passionately about the tenuous fate of the oceans and how this resource which feeds 70% of the world’s population is rapidly being depleted. O’Barry said that he felt responsible for what has happened to dolphins, since the Flipper series from the 60’s started the craze which has led to dolphin entertainment (including swimming with them) becoming a billion-dollar industry. O’Barry sees his actions as civil disobedience and he has been arrested countless times while freeing dolphins. One cast member gave me a helpful Seafood Watch card, which tells which types of seafood are ocean-friendly and which are not. Cards are also available at


Monday, January 19, 2009

The Thriller in Manilla

2009 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★

In 1975, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier staged their third and final battle in the capital of the Philippines. Ali, in his infamous promoting of himself and ticket sales, dubbed it “The Thriller in Manilla.” They had split their first two fights, and by this time Ali was considered the heavy favorite, with many (including Ali’s camp) believing Frazier was washed up. It turned out to be an epic contest, one of the greatest heavyweight bouts of all time. Ali won when Frazier’s camp threw in the towel after the 14th round, although witnesses reveal that Ali was perhaps even less able to answer the bell for the 15th round.

Ali went on to become a mythic figure, the public believing his self-proclaimed title “The greatest fighter of all time.” Later, stricken by Parkinson’s disease, he became universally beloved, virtually worshipped across the globe. In contrast, Joe Frazier has been almost forgotten, the victim of Ali’s public insults and degradations, as well as two-out-of-three losses against Ali. The Thriller in Manilla examines the fight and the events leading up to it from Smokin’ Joe’s perspective. It’s a tale that has never really been told, but was commissioned by the BBC and is likely to show on HBO this year.

It’s a fascinating story. Frazier at his prime was every bit the match for Ali, as the record shows. Further, the fight in Manilla was so close that it could easily have gone either way. Yet Ali is an icon and Frazier lives in an apartment above his old gym in the roughest section of North Philadelphia.

Director John Dower admitted to the Sundance crowd he approached the film with an agenda—a project sympathetic to Joe and willing to take a few politically incorrect shots at Ali (who , as expected, refused the offer to be involved). Gen X and Y moviegoers unfamiliar with the participants may find the subject matter lacks relevance. But for those of us old enough to remember, this was more than a boxing rivalry, and Thriller in Manilla provides a fascinating perspective into one of the most politically charged athletic events in American history. As the movie accurately depicts, Ali vs. Frazier was ideological warfare—the cocky anti-war Muslim who claimed to speak for Black America against (Ali’s words) the ignorant negro Uncle Tom who looked like a gorilla and did the white man’s bidding. And unfortunately for Mr. Frazier, Ali made the labels stick. Frazier has never forgiven Ali for that. And he has never recovered from it.