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CRUDE (review)

In “Crude,” Joe Berlinger’s latest documentary, the Amazon jungle serves as the courtroom for a monumental legal battle between oil tycoon Chevron and 30,000 residents of the Ecuadorian rainforest. The main issues in dispute are whether 18 billion gallons of toxic waste were dumped into an area the size of Rhode Island, causing cancer, birth defects and environmental and cultural degradation, and whether Chevron is responsible. Sweaty and impassioned judges, attorneys and plaintiffs literally traipse across alleged contamination sites, fiercely vying for victory in the court of public opinion as well as a legal verdict.

Three years in the making, the film attempts to tell both sides of the story by focusing on the legal maneuvering of the attorneys, specifically those for the plaintiff, Pablo Fajardo, an Ecuadorian man who had no professional experience before taking the case when it began 16 years ago and Steven Donziger, a fast-talking Manhattanite. Their assertions are countered by Chevron representatives, who claim that any blame lies not with Texaco (from whom they inherited the lawsuit when they purchased the company), but its former partner Petroecuador. Citing insufficient data and pointing to Petroecuador to pick the up the tab, Chevron managed to get the trial moved to Ecuador, which has seen eight presidents since 1996. The game, as Donziger says, is played “dirty,” and the legal proceedings take some turns that even the most die-hard “Law and Order” fans won’t believe.

Though the film offers opposing views of the issue, Fajardo is its unabashed hero. He guides us through the scenes of devastation, visiting with the ravaged families whose children are dying or have died of cancer and collecting samples of the sludge-like hydro carbons found near the riverbeds. However, even when shyly giving a tour of his cramped home or describing the murder of his beloved brother, he never falls into the role of victim, and Berlinger never lingers unnecessarily on emotional outpourings. Even the interviews with a young mother who must make monthly 18 hour journeys so she and her teenage daughter can receive their cancer treatments are dealt with in an anthropological, almost clinical, fashion.

However, the celebrities Donziger convinces to join the fight, such as Sting’s wife and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, are crystal clear where their sympathies lie. Likewise, quick cuts between Chevron scientists denying the existence of oil in the water, to children wading in the slick, shiny liquid, make Berlinger’s point unequivocally.

With no end to the trial in site, Berlinger’s film ends by estimating that it may last another 10 years. Yet, in a world where punitive damages from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill were court-ordered just last year, this seems optimistic at best.

Save for the panoramic splendor of the aerial jungle shots and the few moments of the indigenous people finding some semblance of peace in their violated habitat, “Crude” is difficult to watch. In Berlinger’s own words, “Crude” is not necessarily a film to be enjoyed. However, it is one to contemplate, to incite and to inspire, and, above all else, one not to be missed.


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