From upstate New York to Arkansas to the San Francisco Bay Area and far beyond it, Joe Berlinger’s films, many with co-director Bruce Sinofsky, have been fascinating, cinema verite-style entertainments. Though they’ve investigated crimes big and small, paved the way for new reads of verdicts and, surprisingly enough in the case of the two Paradise Lost films, built movements, the films have never been prosecutorial in style or didactic in nature. They are primarily curious about relationships, misdeeds and the bizarre trappings of very specific subcultures. They don’t default to talking heads, statistics, graphics or the essay format, yet they’ve solved some of the gnarliest puzzles imaginable. Berlinger’s 2009 Crude: The Real Price of Oil could be seen as departure, given its antagonist is Chevron, and it does include a seated interview or two. But its power comes from its measured to approach to all sides. Its primary target is a surprise—in that it implicates American culture as a whole for remaining ignorant of moral crimes being committed elsewhere. I spoke with Berlinger back in 2009, before so many more chapters in the ongoing Crude story had been written, as Berlinger prepared for a trip west, to speak on a panel curated by San Francisco Film Society.
[Editor’s note: Three filmmakers with new work at Sundance have earlier Sundance-premiering films that are featured releases on Fandor this week: Sam Green’s The Weather Underground, Joe Berlinger’s Crude and the Zellner Brothers’ Kid-Thing. Todd Rohal’s Rat Pack Rat, which screens at Sundance 2014, will also be available on Fandor.]
Susan Gerhard: This is a big story here [in the San Francisco Bay Area]. How did you first enter into it?
Joe Berlinger: I’ve been joking, saying I got dragged kicking and screaming into this film. I never imagined it would become a Sundance-worthy film festival favorite. And now it’s getting a semi-successful theatrical release. It’s getting nice reviews. But when I started it, I never thought it was going to be part of my oeuvre.
Steven Donziger, the American plaintiff’s consulting attorney—the big loud guy—came knocking on my door. We have a mutual friend. He was shopping for a filmmaker. Not that he was going to pay for a filmmaker. He came to my office, was very passionate. And as he was talking all my filmmaker red flags started going off about how this was not something I’d want to get involved in. This was before I knew about Pablo Fajardo. This was before I knew that there were judicial inspections that were actually going to take place. All I had was a lawyer who came to me talking about this 13-year struggle and how Chevron was delaying it, and how there might be a trial. As a cinema verite filmmaker who likes to film things in the present tense, I was saying this sounds more like a news story; you might be better off going to 60 Minutes or something like that. (It was after Sundance that 60 Minutes did its piece.) There was no press on this at the time, so he was really desperate for someone to cover it. That was one red flag. The other red flag was, as you know from Paradise Lost, even though my films have a point of view they are generally about larger issues. I embrace ambiguity. I trust my audience, and think truth will rise to the top. That’s not generally the style for these kinds of political/human rights type of documentaries. Somebody like Steven, because he has a clear agenda, I thought would be more comfortable with that other kind of film, the kind of film that I don’t make, with the heavily narrated one point of view that gets reinforced over the course of the film. To me that’s a less persuasive film at the end of the day. It just preaches to the converted as opposed to allowing the audience to come to it.
My other hesitation was: Any good film needs a juicy character. I didn’t think I could build a film around Steven. I didn’t know about Pablo.
My last hesitation was financial. Brother’s Keeper was the last time I rolled the dice financially. I was twenty-eight years old at the time. I put every penny into the making of that film. We rolled the dice and it turned out positively for us [his filmmaking partner at the time was Bruce Sinofsky] —it established our careers. Even though my films are on worthy social issues, ever since then I have vowed not to make a film unless I know who’s paying for it. Or at the very least, unless I know a distribution outlet is attached.
I was very upfront with Steven. But he was very persuasive. He convinced me to come down to the Amazon. He wasn’t paying for me, but he was convinced if I only saw the pollution, I’d have a change of heart. Because I was up for an adventure, I went on the trip. If you want to take the time to take me on this trip, I’ll go.
We went down, and Day one, the pollution is mind-boggling, ten times worse than he described.
I think one of the big failings of the film is its two-dimensionality, because when you’re down there, when you smell it and see it with a 360-degree eye…. this once pristine paradise, one of the few places on earth to survive the last ice age….that biodiversity and human diversity I witnessed under extreme assault. I was embarrassed to be an American. Even if it were legal, what I saw was an incredibly immoral act being committed. I felt a sense of outrage and a sense of responsibility. As an American, as a filmmaker, as a human being—despite all my hesitations—I was being put into this place by the universe. I ‘m somebody at a certain level of his career. It’s time to give something back. The second day of trip, the feeling was smashed over my head as we went down the river to the Cofán community that you see in the film. When I got out of the canoe and saw village people preparing a meal using vats of cheap industrial tuna form another part of the world—these are water-based people who’ve lived in harmony with nature for god knows how long forced to eat canned tuna from another part of the world because the fish in the river are all dead. You walk the village and there’s a sense of despair, diseases that didn’t happen many years ago, and, literally, no fresh drinking water. I went back to New York, tucked my two children into their individual beds, went to one of the four faucets in my house to get fresh drinking water, and thought: How can I turn my back on these people. At the time, that feeling was like: Let me point a camera and see where this goes. Maybe I’ll hand some footage off to somebody else. I still didn’t imagine it would be a film.
The Metallica film was also that way: I started off on assignment because I was out of work. I called up Lars (since Paradise Lost, Lars, the drummer for Metallica and I had become very friendly). I was scrounging for work. I said, ‘Got anything?’ They were about to go into the studio. I called Elektra and convinced them …. let me shoot a little b-roll. I never imagined it would be the epic drama that it turned out to be.
For this film, I made the commitment to go down on a second and a third trip. As soon as I gave into that feeling, magically things materialized. On my second trip, it was Pablo Fajardo. Guy walks into a room, and you just feel his authenticity and heroism. He’s a special guy; you feel it. I felt it at that moment. What an incredible character, just from cinematic viewpoint. Impoverished oil-field worker, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, gets himself educated, is outraged, wants to help his people and finds himself in his first law case against the fifth largest company in the world. I didn’t expect that at the beginning. It clicked. Now I have my central character.
On my third trip, it became clear to me that actually these inspections, which sounded dry, weren’t. On the third trip, the inspections were beginning, and I was pinching myself. Shit, this is very dramatic. Lawyers in jungle gear in massive pollution sites, arguing their cases. The kind of sites that if they were in the United States they’d be fenced off and considered Superfund sites. It’s really dramatic, and now I have my present-tense narrative thread. Even though my original instinct was to be a nice guy. I can be a nice guy but I can actually make this film. Even the money—I’m gainfully enough employed that if I want to, as a hobby, go down and help these people by filming, I can. Even that concern went away, because within a year, after putting together a trailer of the material I shot, the money came relatively easy. It was mainly private money. Netflix/Red Envelope entertainment: I was the last Red Envelope film; they came in for the last twenty-five percent. All those things I worry about clicked into place, and I knew I had a film. It started out with nobler intentions and humbler expectations. It’s turned into an incredible life-changing journey.
Gerhard: Can you give us a timeline of what’s happened since the film premiered at Sundance? What’s been Chevron’s response? [Editor’s note: As mentioned, much as happened since this 2009 interview took place and much more can be found on Berlinger’s Crude web site.]
Berlinger: This is kind of a long way to answer that question. I found it was very important for the health of this film and for the message to not treat it in the standard advocacy way, to have a multiplicity of viewpoints, including Chevron’s.
I think it’s important to have their views represented for a couple of reasons. I’m not a lawyer or doctor or judge, nor do I think it’s the job of the film to evaluate whether Chevron has wrapped itself up in enough legal technicalities to prevail in a lawsuit. To me, the film is about much larger moral issues. When I saw the [canned] tuna fish and the diseases and the utter despair in these villages, it just occurred to me that we forced these people into this quasi Western lifestyle. We took away their sustenance, teased them with western substances, clothing and then abandoned them with poisoned water and an inability to sustain themselves in a traditional manner. To me, that’s criminal, and immoral, whether or not Petroecuador continued to pollute. The film is about the morality of going into the backyard of where people live, operating in a manner they would not in the U.S. and leaving people destitute and not connected to their traditional way of life.
I consider this an advocacy film for the people: We start with the Cofán woman singing her sad song, and end with the Cofán people going downriver to God knows what existence while lawyers and media representatives fly out by helicopter. I’m arguing that these large-scale humanitarian and environmental crises should not be solved through lawsuits; it’s inadequate to deal with these crises. It’s unacceptable that it’s taken 17 years to get to this point. It’s probably going to another ten or fifteen to ever get resolved. Three generations will have suffered before a verdict comes in. That’s unacceptable. It’s an advocacy film, but not, I think, the one the lawyers were looking for when I first signed on.
The Exxon Valdez is a great example of this inadequacy. [It] happened 20 years ago, no one is contesting responsibility—and yet the damages that were going to be paid to the commmunity/villagers were delayed until late last year. As a final slap in the face, they got that judgment reduced by 80 percent. It’s just not right to do it this way.
It’s not just an advocacy film, though, it’s also a portrait of the advocacy and activist movement. It shows all the things the plaintiffs have to do in order to press their case forward. Some things are flattering, some things are not. The recognition that we have to bring celebrities in. I have tremendous admiration for the work of Trudie and Sting [Styler]: In fact, the only tangible benefit that these people have received in 17 years of attention is fresh drinking water. The film is also observing that uncomfortable intersection between celebrity culture and social activism.
Chevron wasn’t sure how to deal with me. We had a very collegial relationship up until the last minute. They’ve seen the reviews—reviewers seeing larger moral issues at play—and I think that freaked them out. They went on the attack to discredit the film without seeing it. And I know they haven’t seen the film, because here’s the timeline:
I spent the first two years in the Amazon covering the trials without really announcing myself. Obviously the plaintiffs knew who I was, but we were flying below the radar. We had a lean-and-mean small crew. Local media was there, Amnesty International. Lots of people with little cameras were there to monitor the trial; I fit into the throng. I was concerned about my safety. We were a few miles from Columbian border, where the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) is very active, drug runners are very active. There’s a history of local companies acting independently sometimes taking matters into their own hands. In Nigeria there have been some murders of activists. I’m not naive or self-important enough to believe that executives in San Ramon, California, would order a hit job on Joe Berlinger because he is making a film, but it’s not inconceivable that locals acting independently would want to rough me up to discourage me. There’s tremendous precedent for that. I did my thing, flew beneath the radar. When I came back to New York with a year to go in the timeline, around the fall of 2007, I started reaching out to Chevron.
I’m going to condense about ten months of conversations and meetings. Initially the conversations were extremely caustic. When Kent Robertson, who’s the guy at the beginning of the film, their media representative, denounces Pablo as an environmental con man when he wins the Goldman Environmental Prize—that fellow was my contact—[was told] I’m making a film, he asked, ‘How long have you been making it?’ I said, ‘two years.’ He said, ‘And you’re just calling us now?’ It sounds like you have a bias.’ I explained that I was concerned about my safety. ‘Now I want your comments from an American standpoint.’ I was not initially looking for talking-head interviews. (Those talking head interviews I have in the film I think aesthetically weigh the film down. Otherwise, it’s a pretty verite film. Other interviews that aren’t with the Chevron people are on-the-fly moments. ) I said, ‘Take me on the tour of the region. Let me see pollution sites from your perspective. Let me film your internal meetings, because I filmed their meetings.’ He said ‘Are you out of your mind,’ which I understand from a corporate level. But I even said, ‘I will film those meetings, whichever ones you want me to attend. I will cut those scenes, I will deliver those scenes, and before you sign a release, I will allow you to approve the scenes. ‘ They said no to that. I was going nowhere for a long time. He said the best we’ll do is give you interviews. At the twelfth hour, after many deadlines being missed, deadline after deadline, they weren’t materializing. I sent a final email: This is it, I’m locking the film for Sundance. They finally agreed.
As we were setting up our interviews, waiting for our talent to come in, another crew came in to film us. Chevron hired a crew to film every move we made, and to film the entire interview process. Which was their way to intimidate me. (It was funny, I wasn’t intimidated.) Which, to me, just establishes a pattern—because they didn’t ask my permission in advance—of surreptitious filming. Which fits in nicely to the latest controversy, the supposed innocent tapes of this judge colluding.
The film got into Sundance. I called up Chevron, said the film is premiering at Sundance, and we’re having a press conference with the plaintiffs. We’d like you to come. They said, ‘We wouldn’t dream of sitting at the same table as the plaintiffs.’ I said, ‘Come to Sundance and have your own press conference.’ They said, ‘We can’t do that unless you send the film. ‘I said, ‘If you come to Sundance, I will screen the film for you, but I’m not sending a DVD over.’ They declined to come to Sundance, didn’t see the film. After Sundance, Kent Robertson, in March, said, ‘We’d like to see the film.’ I said, ‘I’m not sending a DVD—it’s not appropriate for piracy reasons. But if you’d like to come to New York, to my office, I will screen the movie for you.’ We set up a date in my office for them to come see it. Kent Robertson cancelled, literally at the last minute, using the reasoning that he had a major flare-up to deal with (Chevron was involved in another case, in Nigeria, involving the murder of an activist—that case was heating up). The PR representative from Hill and Knowlton (who I had enlisted to get those last-minute interviews) came to see it and was extremely positive about the movie, and thought it was very balanced and fair; said that’s what he was going to tell those guys.
At the beginning of August, I offered to screen the film for their employees and for senior management so that they can understand the film that’s about to come out and discuss it with me. I didn’t hear from them for three-and-a-half weeks. I got an email back from them saying they saw no meaningful value in having a private screening, they would wait to see it in movie theaters. A week after that, the press for the film started hitting. A Huffington Post piece, and a lot of powerful pieces showed that the message of the film was being understood—that there was a much larger moral imperative. And that, I guess, put them on the defensive. A couple of things happened: A few days before the movie came out, they released these supposed sting tapes of a judge accepting a bribe. And if you actually look at those tapes, the twenty-minute tape is anything but the smoking gun. A lot of people reacted to that, and Reuters did a piece saying the timing of these tapes seem to suggest that Chevron is starting to get worried about the movie. Kent Robertson responded by vehemently denying it, saying the film is long on emotion and short on facts. I responded by saying that’s interesting, because they haven’t seen the movie. We opened in New York; we had the highest per-screen average in America (admittedly only on one screen) of any movie. People decided to decide for themselves. To me, that’s a rebuke to Chevron’s attempt to discredit the film. Since then, I haven’t heard anything.
Gerhard: At the same time, that judge stepped down from the case.
Berlinger: He’s recused himself. One of the glaring omissions in all the reporting of this story is that even if you accept at face value that the judge was accepting a bribe, this is a new judge. This is not the judge who was presiding over the two-and-one-half years of judicial inspections covered in the film. At worst, you have a new corrupt judge. And the judge who oversaw and received the independent court expert’s opinion that Chevron owes $27 billion dollars, that judge is not the judge in question. But the way they spin the story, you don’t see that. If you look at the tapes, if you play it from beginning to end, it seems to me like bad acting and entrapment by this allegedly independent businessman who just happens to be trying to film this judge accepting a bribe. It’s like a bad movie. If you watch the tape specifically, as someone who’s been in language translation situations in a number of different countries, you see a judge who’s bad in English, refusing to tell these people how he’s going to rule several times. And then at the end of the tape, this American businessman who just happens to be filming with a secret spy pen camera, asks the judge a series of logistical questions about how the court operates, and the very last question is, ‘So Chevron is the guilty party?’ The judge says ‘yes’ as he’s putting on his jacket. That to me sounds like someone who doesn’t have good language skills is thinking he’s being asked who are the plaintiffs and who are the defendants. Even if it were all true, it’s not the judge who presided over the evidence gathering. On a personal note, I look back to walking into a room to do interviews with Chevron officials being filmed without my permission as indicative of a culture that likes to do these things. It makes me suspicious about these tapes.
Gerhard: How do feature documentaries fit into the changing/shifting/shrinking landscape of investigative journalism at this moment?
Berlinger: There’s lots of different kinds of documentaries and investigative documentaries, and ironically enough, I don’t even call this an ‘investigative documentary,’ though that’s the panel I’m going to be on [via] the San Francisco Film Society. As the media becomes controlled by a smaller number of larger corporations, as the independents and as newspapers are being threatened , I think documentaries have stepped into the void to be true independent reporters of things going on around the world. However, documentary filmmaking is inherently subjective and that’s as dangerous as it is positive. Take me for example. I’m very proud of this film. It reveals larger human truths. But I’m also a storyteller, thinking about an audience as I sit down to edit this film. I think there’s an inherent conflict between the rules of drama and the rules of investigation. I think all media needs to be consumed with a grain of salt. And we should recognize that every piece of journalism is subjective. On the other hand, the world would not know about this this very important story, and because I’m trying to reach people on an emotional, human level, I consider all my films humanistic portraits. I am on the other hand reporting about this lawsuit, but I am really trying to create a humanistic portrait on a larger level, about the mistreatment of indigenous people. I don’t think there’s room for that kind of work in the realm of traditional investigative journalism. This film and others who work like me, we are in a unique class of communication. We are trying to reach people emotionally. We have certain rules of drama we follow to make it an effective film. And, yes, I’m revealing something about a case, but it’s not the traditional journalistic piece that you would see on Frontline nor do I want it to be. This is art in addition to journalism. That has its pitfalls and its advantages.