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Crude: The Real Price of Oil (2009).

Crude: The Real Price of Oil (2009)

Produced and Directed by Joe Berlinger

Distributed by First Run Features

105 minutes


Joe Berlinger's 2009 documentary, Crude: The Real Price of Oil, is a compelling and disturbing examination of efforts to seek environmental justice in Ecuador's section of the Amazon rainforest. In the 1960s, the Ecuadorian government opened the Amazon region to oil exploration, an opportunity quickly exploited by Texaco. After three decades of oil extraction, Texaco sold its operation to PetroEcuador, owned and operated by the Ecuadorian government. The following year, 1993, a class action suit was filed on behalf of the Amazon indigenous populations against Texaco. The case was originally slated for the United States, but the oil company fought to have it tried in Ecuador. The suit charges that the petroleum giant, by diverting its waste byproducts into streams, rivers, and unlined dumping pits, created a level of toxicity that resulted in abnormally high rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, and other health problems. Chevron (which inherited the lawsuit after merging with Texaco) blames PetroEcuador for the environmental damage and claims that, when the company was sold to PetroEcuador, an agreement with the Ecuadorian government granted impunity to Texaco for past and future environmental contamination.

Although Crude presents both sides of this complex and still unfolding legal drama, contrasting positions are depicted in stylistically different ways, possibly the result of Chevron's initial reluctance to provide access to Berlinger. Chevron's arguments are generally told through interviews with company lawyers and scientists. The "interviews," however, are essentially predictable talking points with no interaction between the interlocutor and interviewee. In contrast, the plaintiffs' position is revealed through footage of American lawyer Steven Donziger and Ecuadorian lawyer Pablo Fajardo interacting with the local population and developing their legal strategy. The most notable--and most disturbing--moments include personal stories of the victims: a father recalls losing his young son after he drank water with a high concentration of oil; a young mother attempts to sell a few chickens to raise money for her daughter's cancer treatments, but soon sees the chickens succumb to the toxic environment.

Other segments of Crude are implicitly disquieting. For example, Donziger was exhilarated when rock musician Sting and his wife became involved in the case. Although the couple generated much needed publicity to the plight of the indigenous populations, the viewer is left to ponder why it is necessary to utilize celebrities to achieve justice. One might also wonder how long it will take for justice to be served: Footage includes rows of shelves, filled top to bottom, with the paperwork that must be read by the deciding judge. Meanwhile, the inhabitants continue to suffer as the suit (still undecided in mid-July 2010) may drag on for years. The film's implied point about the lengthy time period is especially relevant today. Although the BP oil disaster has captured the nation's attention, environmental justice advocates will also regrettably remember 2010 as the year in which a decision was rendered for victims of Union Carbide's leakage of lethal gas in Bhopal, India; the decision offered paltry compensation to the victims and was reached twenty six years after the accident.

Although Berlinger's documentary encourages the audience to ask questions about environmental justice, more attention to historical context would provide a framework for those questions. Donziger suggests that the lawsuit--regardless of the outcome--represents a reversal of American companies' tendency to treat Latin America as a "backyard" for natural resources, but the film does not elaborate on the circumstances that fostered this tendency. Furthermore, a framework for environmental questions should also examine the relationship between correlation and causation; a topic alluded to in the film but not developed. For example, the company scientist, arguing that the environmental effects of drilling did not produce the rashes found on seventy-five percent of a community's infants, suggests that fecal matter from an inadequate sewerage system caused the problem. Crude does not develop the issue further, nor does it assess which side has the "better" science.

Evaluating the science, however, was not Berlinger's intention. In an interview, he remarked: "I am not trying to say who should win the legal case--I am not a lawyer or a scientist. I'm simply putting the arguments out there and saying the plaintiffs, meaning the indigenous people, have suffered terribly, regardless of whether Texaco is legally responsible or not, and, in my opinion, Chevron and the government certainly have a moral responsibility to clean up the area." Crude admirably meets the director's purpose while documenting the plight of the Amazon indigenous population, victims of forces beyond their control.

Lawrence Mastroni

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Author:Mastroni, Lawrence
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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