For his most recent documentary, Crude, filmmaker Joe Berlinger, a Northern Westchester resident and Chappaqua native, braved horrendous conditions in the Ecuadorian rainforest to chronicle an ongoing—and seemingly unending—legal case about a situation dubbed the “Amazon Chernobyl.” The 30,000 plaintiffs in the suit claim that Texaco, now Chevron, systematically poisoned the environment, destroying native populations and increasing rates of cancer and other health defects. (Chevron counters that other factors are to blame for the poor health conditions.) The film follows Pablo Fajardo, a tireless Ecuadorian lawyer taking on Chevron on behalf of his country’s indigenous people, as well as Steven Donziger, an American consulting attorney stumping for the cause in Ecuador and abroad. After a screening of the film at Sundance, Variety wrote: “Colorful personalities on both sides, incriminating new/archival footage, slick assembly, and Berlinger’s narrative smarts make this unusually involving edutainment.” We caught up with Berlinger to ask him about the film.
You went from hanging out with rock stars for Metallica: Some Kind of Monster to exposing environmental atrocities in the Amazon rainforest. What attracts you to the stories you choose to film?
I look for unfolding action, where I think I can capture a story in the present tense. It takes a huge act of faith to start a film where you don’t know what the outcome is. When I started Crude, I had no idea that Pablo would take an incredible rise to international fame. There is also a thread in my work of looking for injustice and wanting to shine a light on something or break down stereotypes.
How did you find out about the situation in Ecuador?
Steven Donziger, the lawyer in the film, came to my office to tell me about the case. I told him it didn’t sound like something I would do because much had happened in the past. I thought I missed the story. But I’d never been to the rainforest, so I told him I’d check it out. Once we were down there I saw that Steven was going to be a great character, and that Pablo was going to be a great character. But the thing that really pushed me over the edge was that, on the third day of the trip, we pulled up by canoe to a Cofán village that you see in the film. I got out of the boat, and there were five or six villagers sitting around by the fire near the river eating canned tuna—the cheapest, most industrial can of tuna that you can imagine, from whatever the Ecuadorian equivalent of Costco was. People who have been living off the river forever were eating canned tuna because the river, which was a few feet away, is so contaminated that they can’t catch fish anymore. That image just bowled me over.
What was filming like?
We probably made twenty-five trips to Ecuador over a three-year period. Boy, I’ve never appreciated my home in Westchester more than in making this film. First of all, it was extremely hot—one-hundred-twenty-degree heat. We were in the rainforest, in a part that was devastated by pollution, so the air smelled and you’d go back to your hotel room with a splitting headache. I was taking malaria medication because I was in a malaria zone, and that was making me dizzy. I almost had my Martin Sheen Apocalypse Now moment. I woke up in my hotel room on the fourth night of this malaria medication, and I was hallucinating. I had to stop taking it. Also, we were about a mile-and-a-half from the Colombian border. There, the FARC—Colombian guerillas—were very active, and drug-runners were very active. The town of Shushufindi, where Pablo is from, has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. The first night I checked into my hotel in Shushufindi, somebody had been shot in front of the hotel. The crime was being cleaned up as I was checking in. It was really a dangerous part of the world to be in.
How did the indigenous people feel about your film shoot?
Everybody was incredibly friendly, generous, and welcoming. But for them, this has been going on for a long, long time—almost two decades. I think they’ve grown a little jaded, and their expectations for the film were quite low, because white people had been popping in offering help for a long time. But the indigenous people were also happy, because they wanted the world to know what happened to them, and they saw me as a conduit to tell their story.
You must’ve seen some incredible things while you were down there.
Sometimes you’d go back to your hotel room and want to cry because you were with a thirty-four-year-old mom who had ovarian cancer and her eighteen-year-old daughter who had liver cancer. These people can’t scrape two nickels together, and they have to take an eighteen-hour bus trip when they can pull together five hundred dollars for a cancer treatment. There’s a whole other world out there that the people in the leafy, well-to-do environs of Westchester have no idea about. It’s something I try to make my children understand. I think it’s important for American consumers to understand where their products are coming from. We are all responsible in some ways. We like to have cheap and abundant gasoline in this country, but there’s a price to be paid.
Even though there is a clear message in the film, it seems like you try hard to keep it from being one-sided.
I let the viewers come to their own conclusions because I have a belief that the truth rises to the top. If you whitewash the truth, or you only show one side of something—which a lot of documentarians do—I think people feel like they’re being lectured to, and that the message is being banged over their heads. I believe you engage your audience more by treating them like jury members, where they can weigh both sides and come to their own conclusions. I think that’s more persuasive. I say let Chevron have their point of view. Chevron raises a few good points—but no one is going to believe that they’re the heroes or that they’re acting for any other reason than profit.
What was the response to the film in Ecuador?
There’s a documentary film festival in Ecuador called EDOC. They were so thrilled about this film they made it the opening-night film. We showed the movie, and people were hanging off the rafters. They crammed fourteen hundred people into this twelve-hundred-seat theater. It was a very emotional night. At the end of the film, I brought everyone that was involved in the case up on stage. When Pablo was brought down, he had a fifteen-minute hero’s standing ovation. That was a very memorable evening.Crude opens September 9 at the IFC Center in New York City (where Berlinger will introduce the film on opening weekend), and rolls out to a wider release throughout September and October. Berlinger will also screen the film at the Jacob Burns Film Center on October 18. For more information, click here.