"With the arrival of the company and their contamination/ my brothers are now dead/ I am the only survivor of my family," an elderly Cofán woman sings in the opening scene of Crude. If you're feeling exhausted by the idea of yet another account of how corporate America has been fucking people/the planet over, this may not be the movie for you. This sad song sums up the whole sad story.
If you're up for it, director Joe Berlinger has returned to his excellent Brother's Keeper/Paradise Lost form. Crude offers a surprisingly evenhanded look at the class-action lawsuit some 30,000 Ecuadorians are waging against multinational oil behemoth Texaco (which was later purchased by Chevron Corporation). The company left a huge mess, in the form of 18 million gallons of toxic waste, in the Amazon rainforest, but Chevron argues that it did enough by throwing $40 million at the problem back in 1995--a pittance considering the company yielded $18.7 billion in profits in 2007 alone. It's not hard to believe that it missed a few spots when cleaning up. Harder to believe is that Berlinger actually got Chevron to participate in a movie about a case it's been desperately trying to quash for the past 16 years.
Equal parts courtroom thriller and political outrage, much of Crude's action is set in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Berlinger easily finds evidence of a polluted water supply in the Sucumbíos province, where children have dropped dead after swimming in the river their ancestors thrived on for ages, and toxic sludge beneath a layer of topsoil in an area the company claims it cleaned-up--land where it had previously built some 1,000 sludge pits and where people have since built homes and farms.
Chevron argues inconclusive evidence, even though Berlinger's footage includes ill infants, teenage cancer victims, and a sludge-pit drainage pipe flowing directly into an Amazon tributary. Archival footage, provided by Texaco, shows the company bragging about the origins of the mess: Texaco construction workers clear the rainforest and detonate bombs to dig out sludge pits, while a narrator boasts of how the facilities are state of the art.
Plaintiff's attorneys Steven Donziger, a New Yorker who filed the original U.S. lawsuit that was later moved to Ecuador in 2003, and Ecuadorian Pablo Fajardo, who once toiled in the very oil fields he's fighting to clean up, are compelling central characters and make for an odd couple. Loud and brash, Donziger oozes pushy but well-intentioned competence, while Fajardo, humble and likable at first glance, appears timid but has every bit as much fight in him.
Largely ignored by the mainstream press, the story finally captured the attention of key outspoken celebrities, who not only bring the case some long-deserved media coverage, but allow Berlinger to give Crude a few lighter touches. Those moments are few in powerful documentary, though, and those with the stomach for it will not be surprised when it achieves a cult status on par with The Corporation, When the Levees Broke, or even Berlinger's earlier work. In the meantime, boycott Chevron.