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Crude Awakening for Documentarians

Crude Awakening for Documentarians

Joe Berlinger and I last wrote in the pages of this magazine about Crude, our documentary about the landmark $27 billion “Amazon Chernobyl” lawsuit against Chevron, still underway in the jungles of Ecuador. Since its premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Crude has enjoyed a healthy release; it’s been seen by countless people around the world, has been honored with a number of prestigious awards and it’s been widely praised as a thorough and evenhanded look at a controversial story.

In that previous article, we recounted some of our experiences in making the film—shooting in dangerous places and sleeping with our footage tucked under our pillows at night. Little did we know that, nearly a year later, we would be trying to protect our footage from a potentially greater threat than the violent criminals lurking on the border region of Ecuador and Colombia.

About a month ago, Joe and I were served with subpoenas from Chevron, demanding that we turn over to them the nearly 600 hours of footage we shot during the making of Crude. In a classic example of a legal fishing expedition, Chevron claims that in the three years we spent shooting the film, we may have captured evidence of some sort of wrongdoing on the part of their legal adversaries in Ecuador that could help Chevron in their case, and therefore we must grant the oil company access to every frame we shot.

With our law firm, Frankfurt, Kurnit, Klein & Selz, we are fighting the subpoenas in U.S. District Court, as it is our position that turning over our footage to Chevron (or the plaintiffs’ lawyers or anyone else for that matter) would not only constitute a significant breach of our First Amendment rights, but would also have a chilling effect on the future of documentary moviemaking and journalism worldwide.

Since our case has come to the attention of the media, we have received an incredible outpouring of support from our colleagues in the worlds of documentary moviemaking and traditional journalism, as well as from the public at large.

An extraordinary array of individuals, ranging from Bill Moyers to Michael Moore, D.A. Pennebaker, Norman Lear, Trudie Styler, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Barbara Kopple and many others—as well as organizations including the International Documentary Association, the DGA, the WGA and the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times—have voiced their concern about the frightening precedent that could be set in this case.

If Chevron succeeds in gaining access to our footage, it would obliterate the trust we worked so hard to establish with the individuals who agreed to appear in Crude and open their lives up to us. The ramifications of this will be felt not only by our team and the subjects of this film, but by all moviemakers and anyone who considers stepping in front of a documentarian’s lens in the future.

As we wrote in our last article for MovieMaker, while our sympathies clearly lie with the suffering of the people in the Amazon, Crude takes great pains to afford both sides in the lawsuit the opportunity to state their opposing views, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions about the legal case. We are not lawyers, and a movie theater is not a courtroom. It is our role, and the function of all documentarians and journalists, to shed light on important stories that affect us all.

We never expected or wanted to become actual players in the legal battle between Chevron and the Ecuadorean plaintiffs. But what is perhaps more disturbing to us now is knowing that if we fail to prevail in our legal struggle with Chevron, the devastating effect on documentary moviemaking may be so great that films like Crude will no longer be able to be made. We will continue to fight in the hope that this situation does not come to pass. MM

Michael Bonfiglio is the producer and second unit director of Crude. Joe Berlinger is the director and producer of the film. For more information on the Crude case, including the complete legal documents in the moviemakers’ current situation, visit www.crudethemovie.com.

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