A 'Crude' Awakening: Chevron Vs. The Documentarian In 2009, filmmaker Joe Berlinger released Crude, a documentary that followed key players in a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit against the oil giant. Now, Berlinger is fighting his own battle against Chevron's lawyers -- who think his raw tapes will help them prove their case.


A 'Crude' Awakening: Chevron Vs. The Documentarian

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, a story about an oil spill. Not BP and the Gulf of Mexico but Chevron and the Amazon jungle of Ecuador.

For years, Chevron has been fighting a multibillion-dollar lawsuit over the spill. Last year, a well-received documentary called "Crude" turned a sympathetic eye to the plight of local residents.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the director is now fighting an American judge's order to give Chevron all 600 hours of footage he shot for the film.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: At the outset, Joe Berlinger says, he didn't want to tell this story at all. A guy showed up at his office several years ago - friend of a friend - and told him he just had to do a film on an epic legal battle in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Too complicated, he thought, but he flew to Ecuador anyway on his own dime.

Mr. JOE BERLINGER (Director, "Crude"): I was just stunned at the level of devastation in this once pristine, very important part of the world in terms of our ecosystem. It was under environmental assault.

(Soundbite of movie, "Crude")

Unidentified Man: (Speaking Foreign Language)

FOLKENFLIK: The ensuing movie, "Crude," features tales of ailments and deaths, and it documents the lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 indigenous people. The suit alleges, among other things, that pipes from hundreds of oil pits were intentionally set up to drain a toxic soup into rivers, streams and other sources of drinking water. Chevron inherited the legal headache when it bought Texaco in 2001, and it inherited a public relations nightmare, too.

Steven Donziger is one of the lawyers suing Chevron, and he was that friend of a friend who demanded the filmmaker's attention. He let Berlinger be a fly on the wall to capture private strategy sessions as well as public hearings. Chevron wants to learn what was said behind the scenes.

The company's lawyers say a telling moment appears about halfway through the film. The voice you hear belongs to the lawyer, Steve Donziger.

(Soundbite of movie, "Crude")

Mr. STEVEN DONZIGER (Attorney): So we're going down to have a little chat with the judge today. This is something you would never do in the United States. But Ecuador, you know, this is how the game is played. It's dirty.

FOLKENFLIK: Donziger said he was meeting with the judge to counter an unethical maneuver Chevron's lawyers made behind his back. But lead Chevron attorney Randy Mastro says the scene shows Donziger and his colleagues acting unethically and that the tapes may give him more evidence to help stop the Ecuadorian class action lawsuit and related criminal prosecutions.

Mr. RANDY MASTRO (Attorney): This litigation in Ecuador has become a sham. It's a travesty of justice, and it's a shakedown.

FOLKENFLIK: Now, U.S. Judge Lewis Kaplan has ordered the director to turn over his tapes. Filmmaker Joe Berlinger is fighting the order, saying it would damage his reporting in the future.

Mr. BERLINGER: There's an expectation on the part of my subjects that the raw footage is not going to be released as if it's a 24-7 webcam of their lives. They expect me to sit in an editing room and spend years making a film and to create an honest and accurate portrayal.

FOLKENFLIK: A coalition of the nation's top newspapers, network news divisions and documentarians has filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the ruling be overturned, saying it will interfere with the workings of a free press.

Mr. MASTRO: This isn't a case about the First Amendment.

FOLKENFLIK: Again, Chevron's Randy Mastro.

Mr. MASTRO: This is a case about a plaintiff's attorney who wanted to star in a movie. He gave the filmmaker unprecedented access, and in the process, that filmmaker caught on screen some extraordinary conduct by these plaintiffs' lawyer.

FOLKENFLIK: Chevron has fought the battle on the media front, too. It commissioned a former CNN correspondent to put together video reports that look an awful lot like news stories telling the company's side. Those were posted just as "60 Minutes" prepared to broadcast a hard-hitting story last spring. The company also posted videos showing what it says is misconduct by a judge and experts in the Ecuador case.

Whenever people do Google searches for Chevron and Ecuador, paid links to those sites appear at the top of the screen. Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson.

Mr. KENT ROBERTSON (Media Relations Adviser, Chevron): There definitely is a filter out there. We have sought the opportunity to tell our story through multiple outlets. There is more to the story than has been told.

FOLKENFLIK: But one of the lawyers suing Chevron, Ilann Maazel, says that misses the big picture.

Mr. ILANN MAAZEL (Attorney; Partner, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady): This latest lawsuit they brought against Mr. Berlinger is just another way to delay and distract from this lawsuit and keep people focused on anything except the evidence of their own wrongdoing.

FOLKENFLIK: The ultimate decision here could have far-ranging consequences on two continents - both for American journalists and for what happens to Chevron and the people of the Ecuadorian Amazon in that multibillion-dollar lawsuit.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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