Interview: Joe Berlinger of ‘Crude’

Posted on October 15, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Crude is the latest documentary from Joe Berlinger, whose last film was the award-winning “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” This movie explores a large, complex, international environmental lawsuit over damage allegedly inflicted by an oil company on a community in Ecuador. He also does the television show Iconoclasts, pairing interesting high-profile people with the people who inspire them. I spoke with him by phone about this new film.

NM: How did you gain the confidence of the people you were filming? Unlike your last subjects, Metallica, you were dealing with subjects who were not familiar with media.

JB: I would not necessarily distinguish them that way — getting the trust of a media figure like Metallica or James Hetfield is no easier than getting the trust of these people. One of the amazing things about this experience was how unguarded and open people were and how easy it was to gain their trust. Metallica are not just any rock stars, they are all about male testosterone-fueled rage and not showing any weakness and to allow that to be put on screen was even more difficult.

When I made “Paradise Lost,” a film about three teenagers falsely accused of devil-worshiping murders because of the clothes they wore and the music they listened to, and it was shot in 1993, just as the 24-hour news cycle as we know it today was kicking in and it was a very different mindset. It was the last time I felt in my career that we got that kind of access, total access to the families of the defendants, three families of the victims, the judge, the prosecutor, we filmed the trial. If we made the film today, it would not have been possible. There would be 50 satellite trucks, five Hollywood agents, book deals, that kind of thing has happened in the last five or ten years, who likes to dig in and tell a story over the long haul — not what the media does — it makes my job that much more difficult.

So one of the unexpected pleasures of “Crude” was I once again felt that freedom that I could take my camera anywhere in this country. The people involved were — in a refreshing way — un-media savvy, un-tainted, un-jaded. And these are people who have been wronged for a long time. I was surprised a little bit that a white person and an outsider had such ease. But what motivated me was not the lawsuit per se but I had an epiphany as I walked around the villages and saw the level of disregard that these people have suffered at the hands of others. For the first time I viewed this injustice toward them as part of the long continuum for the last 600-700 years. As I see people eating canned tuna instead because there are no longer fish from the nearby water, getting diseases they never got before, poisoned drinking water. Their lives have been devastated, first by missionaries and then by the oil companies. What made me want to see the film was seeing it in a larger context of displacement and mistreatment of indigenous people. I didn’t want an “oh, we have to win the lawsuit,” one-sided agitprop kind of film-making. That is not consistent with my style of film-making and it is actually less persuasive than my style which is kind of warts and all.

NM: That brings me to my next question. You make a real effort to be even-handed here. The movie certainly has a point of view but you let all sides make their own case. How do you make your point, stay even-handed, preserve your credibility, and still show what you have learned?

JB: Some filmmakers in the category of human rights and expose are afraid of a contrarian point of view, but I think it creates a viewing experience that is active instead of than passive. When a film has a singular point of view — first of all, stylistically I don’t believe in narration because I am a cinema verite film-maker. I want the audience to make up their own minds about what they are seeing. I believe the emotional truth of a situation rises clearly to the top. But a lot of film-makers start a film with a thesis and bang it over your head and have all their points adhere to that thesis. I embrace a contrarian point of view because that way the audience weighs the pros and cons and comes to their own conclusion. If you treat an audience member like a member of a jury they will make up their own minds and that is much more persuasive experience than telling them what you think they should think. Only people who already agree with you will see it. Any film where you want to affect social change you have to bring other people into the fold. You have a better chance of having people walk out of the movie and take action if they have been actively engaged. There hasn’t been a screening of this film where I haven’t had 40 people come up to me afterward and ask me what they could do. If people come to their own conclusion they will want to become more involved.

NM: How do you frame the story then?

The other thing that allowed me to be even-handed, and this was to the consternation of some of the activists and certainly to the plaintiff’s lawyers, who were surprised that it was not more overtly in favor of the lawsuit, is that the film to me is not really about the lawsuit. It is an excuse to tell a larger story. The lawsuit, while I think it’s important that there is a lawsuit and it is an historic one because it is the first time indigenous people have brought a foreign company into their own courts to hold them accountable, and it was important to deflate the issue of the for-profit lawsuit right up front instead of hiding from it, but a lawsuit is an inadequate vehicle for addressing humanitarian and environmental issues. We’re in year 17 with no end in sight. Even if there is a ruling this winter, as we expect, it will be appealed for another decade. And then try to make them pay. Look at the Exxon Valdez. Everyone agreed that they were in the wrong but it took almost two decades to pay those fines and at the last minute they got a judge to reduce the amount by 80 percent.

The other larger observation of the film is that I am not smart enough to tell you whether Chevron has wrapped itself up in enough legalities, all the legal issues and claims and counter-claims. The jurisdictional issue is interesting, the initial release from the government is an interesting issue. I’m not trained in the law. To me, there’s a much larger issue here, and that is the utter immorality about what is done. The law is not about seeking the truth; it is about presenting the best argument. For me, there is no justification for what they did originally. They came into a place where there were six indigenous tribes, and yes, the government had a hand in it, and they set up a system that was designed to pollute. There is no moral justification for that, to use methods that were not permissible in our country. Unlike everyone else, after the arguments are over, they have to go back there to God knows what existence, to that poisoned environment. Another generation will suffer because the lawsuit is taking so long.

Another reason for the stylistic approach is that it is an advocacy film but it is also a portrait of advocacy. The camera pulls back a bit in a self-reflective way and looks at the advocacy movement, what each side has to do to push their agendas forward. Some people asked, “Are you sure you want to show the coaching of the witnesses?” It wasn’t about gotcha.

NM: It was about teaching them you have to speak their language.

JB: There’s an honesty in that that I think the audience feels and it helps in their engagement to weigh the issues, including to weigh the media and celebrities. It asks why in this country unless there is celebrity attention on a social or humanitarian issue it does not get any media attention? I have enormous regard for Sting and Trudie Styler for what they did for this region long before the celebrity photo-op was fashionable, they walk the walk, but the film is critiquing why we need that.

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