Chevron/Ecuadorian Amazon Film Tries Not to Take Sides, but Fails

A shakedown is still a shakedown – even when every side of a “complicated” story is shown.


But “Crude,” Joe Berlinger’s documentary about the Amazon Defense Front’s $27-billion lawsuit against Chevron (NYSE:CVX) for allegedly not cleaning up abandoned Ecuadorian oil wells, doesn’t quite see it as a shakedown. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition on Jan. 18, was previewed to members of the media in New York City on July 20 and will be released to the public on Sept. 9.


The film centers around New York plaintiff’s lawyer, Democrat contributor and former Harvard Law School classmate of President Barack Obama Steven Donzinger, and Pablo Farjado, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Ecuadorian case. The film follows the paths of these two individuals very closely – particularly Farjado, who comes off as a sort of third-world hero. Interspersed are scenes with alleged victims and Chevron’s arguments. Berlinger tries to maintain his impartiality.


“From a legal and scientific standpoint, I think that both sides make a number of valid points,” Berlinger said in the film’s production release. “I’m not a judge or a lawyer or a scientist, and I certainly wouldn’t presume to attempt to try a case as complicated as this one in an hour and forty minutes. As a filmmaker I feel it is my responsibility to show both sides of an issue to best of my ability, but it’s not my job to reach a conclusion about the legal case.”


And Berlinger attempts to allow Chevron to rebut the charges against it, which have been highly publicized, including with hit pieces from CBS’s “60 Minutes” and The New York Times. But with the majority of the film dedicated to the efforts of Donzinger and Farjado, “Crude” never quite achieves balance.


The film also attempts to draw a connection between hydrocarbons in the Ecuadorian rainforest and instances of cancer, specifically in a small Ecuadorian village called San Carlos. and her mother’s struggles. Berlinger follows Silvia Yanez and her mother, Maria Garofalo, closely – even during cancer treatments.


But Berlinger neglected to take a closer look and consider the possibility that the cancer might be related to any number of issues other than any remnants of Texaco’s venture into Ecuador. One-third of the $27 billion proposed in the lawsuit is supposed to address cancer issues. But Chevron consultant UCLA School of Public Health Professor Michel Kelsh found no evidence that the now inoperative oil wells created a spike in cancer – making the $9-billion figure a gross exaggeration.

“We looked at cancer mortality rates in the Amazon region in general, and we compared those rates to Quito, and we found that the Amazon region has much lower cancer rates,” Kelsh explained on behalf of Chevron. “We also compared the regions where there were oil activities in the Amazon to regions where there were no oil activities and really found no differences. We actually found slightly lower rates of cancer in these regions.”


Berlinger did viewers of the film a disservice by not examining the poor track record of PetroEcuador, the state-owned oil company. PetroEcuador has a horrendous environmental record with more than 1,000 oil spills since 2000. In 2006, BusinessWeek said the company had “suffered an oil spill every two days this year.” That in itself is something Berlinger should have noted in his reporting. But Berlinger had another agenda.


“One issue that neither side disputes is that the conditions for the people and the environment in this region are not good, which is ultimately what the film is about,” Berlinger said. “And while the film does not take an overt position on the legal case, I think it does raise issues about the long history of multinational corporations working with governments, with the results for the average citizens – especially in the long term – being detrimental. Whether that is illegal or simply immoral is for others to decide.”


One thing “Crude” does well is to give viewers an inside look at how Donzinger and the Amazon Defense Front play their game. In one scene Donzinger coaches an indigenous Ecuadorian to make his statement to a Chevron’s shareholders’ meeting more dramatic. In another, they consider what buzzwords Rainforest Foundation activist Trudie Styler, married to musician Sting, should use in front of the press while touring Ecuador.


Berlinger has also directed several other films including “Paradise Lost” (a documentary about the West Memphis 3 murders), “Brother’s Keeper” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,”