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Q&A: Joe Berlinger

By Joe Tropea | Posted 11/11/2009

A documentary filmmaker has to pay the bills. So between press junkets, making a new HBO documentary, and shooting a seafood commercial in New England, badass documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger—see also: Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost 1&2, and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster—took time to speak with City Paper about his newest documentary, Crude.

City Paper: How did this story go from being a news story—albeit a really major one—to a feature-length documentary?
Joe Berlinger: I kinda got dragged into this kicking and screaming. I wasn’t necessarily sure there was a film. It was more like a humanitarian impulse, basically. So I’m as surprised as anyone that the film’s had the life that it’s had. Although, once I got deep into it, obviously I thought there was a feature-length film.

When I started the project my expectations were more humble. Basically, Steven Donziger, the plaintiff’s consulting attorney—the American guy representing the class-action law firm that’s funding the case—came to my office in Manhattan in 2005. My red flags went off as he was describing the story to me. He wasn’t looking to hire a filmmaker, obviously—he had no budget—nor would I work under that kind of a circumstance. I’m a journalist as well as a filmmaker, and I wouldn’t take a paid assignment from a lawyer on a lawsuit; it’s not what I do. So as he was talking, my filmmaker red flags were going off that this was probably not something I could make a film about. All of my films have this style of not banging a single-minded message over people’s heads: I don’t use narration, I like multiple viewpoints. . . . so I just thought my style of filmmaking would be inconsistent with what I perceived a plaintiff’s lawyer would want for a film.

It turns out I should’ve given him more credit, because he was open to whatever kind of film I would make. I was also concerned, selfishly, you know, how would I raise money for this kind of a film? I barely knew where Ecuador was. When he left the meeting, I had to go check a map to remind myself where exactly the country was. It’s hard enough to raise money for a documentary, let alone one in another country. The biggest thing, though, is I’m a cinéma vérité filmmaker, which means I film things in the present tense as they’re unfolding. And at the time Steven was pitching me, I had not yet met Pablo Fajardo, who’s a character you can sink your teeth into. I didn’t know there would be judicial field inspections that would give me that present-tense structure. All Steven was telling me was that they were in year 13 of this lawsuit, and I felt, you know, perhaps I’d missed the story. I was very upfront with him. I said, “You know, this sounds more like a 60 Minutes piece, a news story, or a news-magazine show segment. I’m not sure there’s a film here.” I give him a lot of credit. He envisioned a longer film, thought I was the right guy, and he was convinced if I went down to see the region I might have a change of heart.

All of those doubts melted away when I landed in the jungle and saw this once pristine area just devastated by oil production. I mean, this is a 1700-square-mile area, the size of Rhode Island, that has just been completely contaminated. The ground water is filthy, as you see in the film, hundreds of these pits. I just started feeling all of my resistance—I still didn’t think there was a film to be made—but I felt a kinda tug of, you know, moral responsibility. For whatever reason, not in a self-important way, the universe was tapping me on the shoulder saying, OK, you seem to be the guy that’s going to have to tell this story, because when I walked around this region, I just felt embarrassed to be an American—if it were true that an American company had anything to do with this, even if it’s legal.

CP: Chevron seems to try to obscure the facts—particularly the timeline of events. Who was on the scene first? Texaco or Petroecuador?
JB: That’s an excellent point. That’s one of the most frustrating things about this, the disinformation and misinformation that’s put out about this case. The bottom line is Texaco arrived in the late ’60s, was given permission by the government to drill. They entered into a consortium—they like to call it a consortium so it sounds like a lot of companies. But the consortium was Texaco and Petroecuador. And, believe me, the film is not just a one-sided agitprop that says the plaintiffs have an absolutely ironclad case. There are some issues. The government has a hand to play, but you are right. Chevron likes to disguise the timeline a little bit. The original split was between Texaco, Gulf, and Petroecuador. But early in the process the government threw Gulf out and took over their shares, so the majority member of the consortium was Petrocuador. But at the end of the day it was Texaco and Petroecuador. . . . but Petroecuador was just a government arm to allow, you know, a country that had no history of oil exploration, did not have the technology, the infrastructure, the knowledge, [and] invited an American oil company to come in as the sole operator of those fields—even though it was jointly owned. The operator of these fields was Texaco, and Texaco designed and created a system that was designed to loot—the direct pumping of toxic waste into the rivers and streams.

One of the points that’s not as clear in the film, and I wish it were, there are three levels of pollution. One level, of course, are those giant pits that have the piping that allows overflow to this day to continue to leech into rivers and streams that feed the area. The other level of pollution, the main cause of pollution—and this is what Chevron does not like to talk about today—is called formation water. When oil is in the earth's center, it’s mixed with what’s called formation water, which is water that’s been mixed with the raw crude for millions of years. When oil comes up, it gets sent to a central separation station near these well sites. The oil and the water are separated.

The water, in first-world countries, is re-injected back into the cavities of dormant wells out of harm’s way, and the raw crude goes by pipeline to the nearest shore, loaded into tankers, and then goes off to the United States to be refined. In Ecuador, that oil and water was separated and the water was 24/7, for three decades, piped into the rivers and streams that are the homes to these indigenous people. These are the rivers and tributaries that feed the Amazon River in Ecuador. Texaco was the sole operator. They created a system—instead of re-injecting the water—that pumped formation water into the rivers and streams, cut out these pits that were supposed to be cleaned out upon departure. Instead, they were left for decades.

Of course, Texaco has their argument saying they only had to clean up a certain portion, because they were the majority member of the consortium, so they cleaned up their percentage of pits. Which is true, and it’s untrue, because the plaintiffs will tell you it was fraudulently remediated and they just bulldozed dirt over it. But the major issue here is that Texaco was in a deal with the [Ecuadorian] government from ’64 to ’92 to extract oil. It was a consortium of two-thirds ownership by Petroecuador, which at the time was just a government entity, one-third Texaco. But Texaco built, created, and designed the infrastructure. They were the operator of these fields. The government was relying on their knowledge about how to extract oil. The government decided they didn’t want to renew Texaco’s concession in 1992. Texaco left the country, turned all the infrastructure they had created over to Petroecuador, and Petroecuador continued to pollute with this leaky, creaky polluting system. And that’s the lynchpin of Texaco’s argument: all this pollution, all this oil is from the Petroecuador days.

Now, there are two things to say about that. One is when they left the country in ’92, the place was a mess. There’s tons of documentary evidence to that effect. This is what Texaco would like you to forget—the lawsuit was originally filed shortly after their departure in ’93 in a U.S. court. That, in and of itself, suggests that there was a mess they left behind because the lawsuit was filed on the heels of their departure. Texaco, and then Chevron when the companies merged, fought for nine years to move the case to Ecuador. They argued in a U.S. court that the forum for this should be in Ecuador, not the United States.

Now, their argument was the damage took place there, that’s the convenient forum. A cynic would say they didn’t want it in the U.S. court because they didn’t want the publicity. And, at the time when they started these arguments, Ecuador was ruled by a military dictatorship that was very pro-business. That’s what a cynic would say.

I’m not saying that, of course. So now, cut to 2009 when you read all their literature about this case it sounds very compelling. “Hey, we left in ’92. All of this pollution happened after we left. We did our job. We cleaned up. If you see fresh oil on the ground, it’s Petroecuador’s.” And there’s some validity to that argument. But the plaintiff’s argument is even if there’s fresh oil, it’s the responsibility of Texaco, because they designed and created a system that was designed to pollute. And what they don’t like to talk about when they talk about “Oh, there’s fresh oil,” well, what about three decades of dumping highly salty, toxic waste? What kind of damage did that do?

CP: So how and why did Chevron come to cooperate with your film?
JB: It was a long, drawn-out process. A big chunk of their cooperation I didn’t have to ask for. I was allowed to film those trial sequences, those field inspections where both sides were arguing. And, in fact, I didn’t even reveal who I was, because I was just very concerned with flying beneath the radar. We were in a very dangerous part of the world. We were a mile and a half from the Colombian border at times. There’s a big border dispute between Ecuador and Colombia, because of the natural resources, and that brings in a criminal element. There are drug runners in that region. The FARC guerillas are very active there. There’s just outlaws like a Wild West oil town. Not that I think San Ramon executives are going to order a hit on me, but I just didn’t want to take any chances.

There’s a history in these kinds of cases, not just with oil companies, but . . . the multinational company hires a local company to do work, that local company hires another local company, and sometimes local interests take it as if there’s going to be trouble [that will] upset that chain of employment. They’ll take it upon themselves to rough people up or whatever. So I want to be very clear. I don’t think Chevron would have done anything to me. But because there was a lot of local media covering it, and there were several NGOs, Amnesty International and Amazon Watch, covering the case, and we were using very small cameras and a small crew, no one asked who I was nor did I declare who I was. Obviously, the plaintiffs knew, but I was just part of that throng you see in the movie. There were tape recorders and cameras, so all Chevron knew was that there was a lot of media attention focused on these field inspections, and I was just part of that fray. Ecuador doesn’t have any laws against filming that sort of thing.

So I got what I wanted to get and came back to New York after the conclusion of those judicial field inspections. And I still had a year left to my production, and that’s when I reached out to Chevron, to Kent Robertson. He’s their media- and government-relations person—the guy in the beginning of the film who, when Pablo Fajardo wins the CNN Goldman Prize, says in an TV interview that Fajardo’s an environmental conman out to line his own pockets. Which is just an absurd position to take, you know?

So I called Kent up and, after many phone conversations and many e-mails, it started off basically very caustic. When I said who I was, I was asked, “How long have you been making the film?” I said, “Two years.” And he said, “Well, you’re coming to us now? That doesn’t seem like you want to be fair and objective.” And I said, “No, I just wanted to be safe,” and I explained my desire to fly beneath the radar for my own personal safety.

“Now, I’m coming to you, and I could certainly make the film without your cooperation because I have all of your arguments, but in Spanish language. I think if we had some U.S. representatives of the company, it would be more helpful to your side and my film.” And the funny thing is, the last thing I wanted was sit-down, talking-head interviews, which is what we ended up getting. Any of the other interviews are, like, caught in the moment on the fly, like in the cab on the way to a judge’s office. So my original request to Chevron was, “I’ve shot plaintiff’s meetings, let me shoot your meetings. Give me a few meetings to sit in on, and if you don’t trust that I’ll represent you accurately, I will send you the cut versions of the scenes"—I’m not going to send you what’s around them—"and you don’t have to sign a release or approve the use of the scenes, and I won’t be able to use it.” Which was a bold offer that they turned down.

I then said, “I’ve been to the region and have been taken on a tour of the pollution sites from the plaintiff’s point of view. I would be delighted to do it from your point of view. Take me on a tour of the region and explain the pits from your perspective” —because I was trying to do anything possible not to do a sit-down interview. I just find that awkward.

In fairness, they entertained the idea, or at least they told me they were thinking about it, but ultimately it took 11 months of What are we going to do? I enlisted the aid of one of their many public-relations firms, a company called Hill and Knowlton, and there was a guy there whose official title was their crisis manager, a guy named Chris Gidez, who was actually very supportive—he knew and liked my previous films—of the idea of doing the film. I ended up having an in-person lunch and after four or five months of e-mails and phone calls going from extreme distrust—they brought up a Vanity Fair journalist who said he wanted to do fair and balanced and then did a hit piece—to, by May, we’re having a lunch that was fairly civilized. And finally in August of 2008, I called Chris Gidez and I said, “Look, I am not kidding, I have to lock this film down by September 1 because I am submitting it to the Sundance Film Festival for consideration. So if these interviews that we’ve been talking about for the last several months are going to happen, it’s really got to happen now.”

Something in the tone of my voice must have worked because at that point. He talked to Kent Robertson, and Kent called me and said, “We’ll do the interviews. We’re going to give you Sara McMillen, our chief environmental scientists, and Ricardo Reis Vega, the chief counsel for this lawsuit. Please come down to Coral Gables, Florida.” Coral Gables is the headquarters for Chevron Latin America. They didn’t want me filming on site, they chose a hotel-room suite.

The funny thing is, when I walked into the room and my crew and I started setting up our gear, another crew walked in and started setting up their gear. And I said, “I think you guys may be in the wrong room.” And they said, “No, no. We’re here to film you. We’ve been hired by Chevron to cover you covering these interviews” —which I thought was very bizarre, something that had not been discussed with me in advance, and something that I’ve never encountered in my career. Obviously, that was an intimidation technique designed to say we have a full record of everything you’re doing here. But that’s not my style. I don’t manipulate a straight-forward talking-head interview. So it took a while.

CP: You mentioned that you were working in a region that borders Colombia with drug runners and FARC militants nearby. Did you or your crew have any interesting encounters or close calls?
JB: We had a few close encounters. But, luckily, I was amazed to find in Quito a world-class crew, a shooter and a sound person, and another guy who was a translator. So I felt very safe that I was in the hands of local people. The Amazon Defense Front kept an eye out for me, because they were supportive of the film. So it’s not like it was a bunch of white guys from New York, but we did have a few situations. Our hotel room was broken into once. Was that people looking to steal stuff, or was it more sinister? I don’t know. There was one day we were followed and it made us very nervous, but nothing egregious.

What was more taxing was just the environment. At times, it was like 120-degree heat and you're standing in front of these massive pollution sites that in the United States would be fenced off and people would not be allowed to be around. They would be considered Superfund sites. You’re shooting these scenes wearing heavy clothes, because it’s a malaria zone, slathered up, ironically, in 100 percent DEET, toxic chemicals to keep the mosquitoes at bay. And by the time you spend two hours by these pits, your eyes are tearing and you have a headache. So when people ask me if I’ll make a sequel, I say, “Probably not.” It was just a physically demanding shoot.

CP: The film is exceptionally evenhanded. Yet in saying this, I don’t see how you can come away from it and not think Chevron/Texaco/corporate America is guilty as hell. What’s your opinion after seeing this situation in person?
JB: I actually feel very neutral with regard to the lawsuit. I think the film is a neutral portrait of the lawsuit. It’s obviously not neutral with regard to where my sympathies lie. My sympathies lie with those indigenous people who have been fucked over, first by their government, and then by oil production.

And the larger theme of the film is whether Chevron has wrapped itself up in enough legal technicalities—and they have some interesting arguments—but I am not smart enough or trained enough, I am not a lawyer or a judge or a scientist. I can’t tell you whether those legal technicalities or arguments will have them prevail in the lawsuit or not. For me, the larger moral issue in the film is that there is no moral justification for what was done. You know, in 1935 Nazi Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws, which made it perfectly legal to discriminate against Jews. That doesn’t mean if you have the law on your side, you have morality on your side. So you can’t tell me that it’s correct to go into a region that we should all be cherishing—the Ecuadorian Amazon was one of the few places on Earth to survive the last Ice Age and it’s an incredible laboratory for biodiversity—of all the places to go despoil, it shouldn’t be this one. One of Chevron’s arguments at the trial is that this is an industrial zone and people shouldn’t be living here. Excuse me, people have been living there for centuries. But the film is not here to prove the lawsuit one way or the other. It’s here to scratch the surface and tell the larger story.

And the other theme of the film, which is why I feel it’s OK to be neutral with regard to the lawsuit, is that at the end of the day, I think a lawsuit while important and historic—it’s the first time an indigenous people have hauled a multinational into their own courts and tried to hold it responsible for their misdeeds—is an inadequate societal response to such a large-scale environmental and humanitarian crisis. It’s the 17th year of a lawsuit that’s going to go on another 17? Chevron has promised a lifetime of litigation. So if it takes another decade to clean that mess up, these people have to live with that mess. This shouldn’t be our response to a crisis 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez, waiting for lawyers to come to a conclusion.

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