Joe Berlinger’s “Crude” – Film review

Film: Crude

Filmmaker: Joe Berlinger

Reviewed by: Katy Jones

Sunday, Becky and I finally got the chance to watch Joe Berlinger’s much-hyped film Crude. And dadgummit if it didn’t live up to the hype.   And thanks to Netflix streaming, you too can watch it immediately, and you should, you really really should.

Long ago, in the Ecuadorian rainforest, a young man gets a job working for the foreign oil company Texaco.  He witnesses countless atrocities, unsafe working conditions, toxic pollution, and abuses of power.  When he grows up, his church sponsors his education and sends him to law school.  He emerges with a mission.  To take Texaco to court and make them answer for the ruination of the rainforest in their pursuit for oil.

Crude follows three years in the life of that court battle.  In the rainforest itself, with evidence in the case coming forth from the ground beneath the judge’s feet.    The land is toxic, the water is poisoned, the children get cancer and die.  And there is nothing to do to stop it – except hit the oil companies where it hurts.

The complexity of this story – with it’s accompanying heart-break, humanity, and posturing-  is artfully portrayed in the Berlinger documentary.  In the initial few minutes, we see the Ecuadorian lawyer Pablo Fajardo traveling to the rain forest to meet with members of the Cofan tribe to ask what they would need for restitution, what course of action could help make the deaths of their families and their culture “right.”   As the story follows Pablo, the audience is guided by his American counterpart, American lawyer Steven Donziger who helps to coordinate the American legal element of the case – which has become even more complex once Texaco merged with Chevron.

Pablo is our hero who is “the David in this David and Goliath story.” But for story purposes, his American counterpart Steven Donziger is the English- speaking guide who shows us the work that is being done on Pablo’s behalf.  The structure works well – following these two major characters helps to braid the multiple sides of the story.  We meet the voices of the Chevron company who insist that the fault of the degradation is not theirs to bear.  We have a guide through the rainforests and politics of Ecuador.  And guides through the legalese and urban landscape of the United States.  We even get the chance to see it through Pablo’s eyes.  We also meet the individual voices out of 30,000 constituents in Ecuador who have lost their children, homes, and livelihood to the destruction of the rain forest in the quest for oil.

I have been thinking about the issues for days – do I live in a toxic culture?  Am I contributing to it?   Am I to blame?  Would the destruction have been less pervasive if Chevron had stopped the court battle and offered to help?  Is the company to blame?  Or the government?  How do you make these things “right”?

And that’s the best part of this documentary.  It’s a skillfully told story, with something truly at stake, that introduces you to a culture and problem you couldn’t have truly understood before.  I loved it.

Five out of five cheers

Katy Jones

More about the film

Crude’s Blog

Chevron’s Comments

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