Directed by Joe Berlinger
First Run Features, 104 minutes
The documentary Crude is obsessed with celebrity. The film is ostensibly about a long-running Chevron-Texaco trial over the oil company’s liability for groundwater pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon. But whenever the filmmakers have the chance, they put the spotlight on the famous. Crude opens with a television news segment covering a fancy awards ceremony. It ends with another awards ceremony – the CNN Heroes gala – and an out-of-context scene of Darryl Hannah reviewing the case files. In between, it saves its highest points for a rock star and his well-intentioned wife. The result is a, well, crude lesson about social movements in the 21st century: The filmmakers seem to be under the impression that the moral force of the historically oppressed is dependent on the glow of the bold-faced names.
Which is too bad, because at its heart, Crude is an important story that demands to be told on its own terms. According to the NGO Amazon Watch, from 1964 to 1990, Texaco – which merged with Chevron in 2001 – dumped some 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater in the eastern jungles of Ecuador. After Texaco left the region, a group of US attorneys filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorians, claiming that the oil company had irresponsibly disposed of its waste, resulting in an epidemic of cancer, rashes, and other ailments.
At its best, Crude is a classic courtroom drama. Only instead of taking place in the halls of some venerable court, the action occurs at the scene of the crime – in the jungle itself. In what seems to be Ecuadorian legal custom, the attorneys plead their cases surrounded by the oil pits that are at issue. Gas flares spout flames as the judge hears the arguments in the evidentiary phase of the trial. These outdoor court maneuverings make for the best scenes. The lead attorney for Chevron, Adolfo Callejas, is like a bad guy lawyer from Central Casting: bony, severe, and condescending. The villagers’ attorney, Pablo Fajardo, is the opposite. His body thrums with righteous indignation. “I know I always tell the truth, and if I have to die for it, then I will with pleasure,” he says at one point.
Fajardo is the obvious hero here, a kind of rainforest Atticus Finch determined to see justice served. If he is the conscience of the movie, the people he represents are its soul. “We are people who don’t have the means to pay for our daughter’s treatment,” says Maria Garofalo.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t sustain these emotions. Director Joe Berlinger has an eclectic history as a documentarian. His first two films, Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost, were also true-crime stories. But his most popular film was a Metallica biopic called Some Kind of Monster, and in Crude his fascination with media distracts from the case at hand. A few minutes are given to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa when he visits the affected communities. When Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife and head of The Rainforest Foundation, pays a similar visit, she gets triple the screen time. A Vanity Fair profile of Fajardo is treated as if the case is about to be won.
There is no question that in a celebrity-saturated age media savvy is crucial for environmental campaigners. But Berlinger – influenced probably by the tactics of Steven Donziger, a manipulative but well meaning US attorney who counsels Fajardo – seems to think that success relies on stardom. Styler’s work with UNICEF to get clean water for the affected communities is a real boost to people’s quality of life. But noblesse oblige shouldn’t be confused with justice.
A telling moment regarding that confusion comes on the eve of Sting’s Live Earth concert, when Fajardo sheepishly admits to a journalist that he has never heard of The Police. And “now he’s on Sting’s team,” Donziger says. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?