Photo by David Gilbert, http://www.uncontacted.com/
A documentary or any feature film, like a good dessert, needs good texture. Some docs offer light delicate flavors, while others serve up crisp tawdry offerings but Crude, the latest feature documentary from director Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) brings a feel so viscous its some wonder that the film and the emotions within it don’t just ooze into the theater.
And why wouldn’t the film be viscous with center of the film swirling around a legal case about the black gold being pumped out of the jungles of Ecuador. Some have called the case the “Amazon Chernobyl” but whatever the name, Berlinger delves head first into this the David versus Goliath story that circles around one of the longest and most controversial legal (not to mention environmental and human rights) cases ever.
Crude aptly gives a balanced view of the various sides involved in the case which pits plaintiffs (30,000 indigenous and colonial rainforest dwellers) versus U.S. oil giant Chevron. The plaintiffs claim that Texaco – which later merged with Chevron – systemically contaminated an area the size of Rhode Island over a period of three decades. The plaintiffs allege that the contamination has led to numerous birth defects, increased rates of cancer leukemia, not to mention deaths.
Shot in cinéma vérité style Crude brings together various elements that one might not expect from a single documentary including: high stakes legal motions, backroom legal maneuvering, global politics, environmental causes, social justice, media frenzies, celebrity activism, multinational corporate power, and disappearing culture.
With so many layers, the film could have easily been bogged down (like the over 10 year still on going trial) but Berlinger keeps much of the film out of the courtrooms and in and around the alleged contamination sites where both the judge and attorneys for both sides trudge through the sludge and jungle to the various inspection sites. Crude deftly moves from the jungle to health clinics to the celebrity scene where rainforest advocates Trudie Styler and Sting helped bring attention to the case.
Crude come off like a war documentary shot in the trenches but instead of offering a dry, matter-of-fact 60 Minutes style, Berlinger makes the film personal. Looking at the smaller picture includes heartbreaking scenes with local ingenious people who have suffered through various illnesses, tragedies and deaths. But the doc also captures the lawyers and scientists and their opinions not to mention their polarized philosophies. Berlinger doesn’t set out to take sides but it’s easy to tell from the various on-screen quotes about who offers sincerity versus others who “hang themselves” with their own words.
Although Crude could have delved deeper in the minutiae, the 101 running time severs as a reminder about not only how powerful film making can be but how important and informative the subject can be as well.
Crude shows May 2nd at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival