Q&A: ‘Crude’ Director Joe Berlinger on Chevron Oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Joe Berlinger discusses the three years he spent documenting the international legal battle and the human faces that have emerged from a major environmental disaster of oil contamination in the rainforest.

Welcome to Circle of Blue Radio’s Series 5 in 15, where we’re asking global thought leaders five questions in 15 minutes, more or less. These are experts working in journalism, science, communication design, and water. I’m J. Carl Ganter. Today’s program is underwritten by Traverse Internet Law, tech savvy lawyers, representing internet and technology companies.

Joe Berlinger
Joe Berlinger is a filmmaker who spent three years in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, documenting the international legal battle between Chevron and the indigenous peoples for his film, Crude.
Photo Copyright Ali Pflaum

Thirty-thousand rainforest dwellers have taken on one of the largest companies in the world, Chevron, for allegedly having polluted nearly 2000 square miles of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The locals say 50 years of drilling have caused high rates of cancer in their communities; Chevron insists that the inflated illness rates are due to poor sanitation. Chevron inherited the David and Goliath lawsuit–it’s worth $27 billion–when it bought Texaco in 2001. Circle of Blue reporter, Aubrey Parker, spoke with Joe Berlinger about his latest film, Crude. Three years in the making, Crude documents the rising international support for this environmental issue as the lead attorney, a man from the affected area in the Amazon, speaks at Live Earth, graces the cover of Vanity Fair and wins a Hero Award from CNN.

Joe, can you give us an introduction to the nature of your film and how the alleged contamination in the Amazon by Chevron/Texaco relates to water?
Joe Berlinger: Basically, it is alleged that a 1700 square mile area, the size of Rhode Island, has become a cancer death-zone due to negligent drilling practices, which included the creation of these probably over 1000 unlined pits where raw crude and toxic waste was dumped, and this material continues to leech into the water table. In addition, they directly released toxic waste directly into the rivers and streams at the time of production. When crude comes up from the ground, the crude and the water are separated, and the water has a lot of chemicals in it, and that was released into the environment. That’s what’s alleged in the lawsuit. Chevron claims that they did everything by the book and that this is just a lawsuit brought about by environmental con men who are looking to line their pockets. The film captures that dynamic.
So, access to clean water for drinking and bathing is definitely a central issue to your film?
Joe Berlinger:Yeah. I mean, this is the heart of the Amazon rainforest where people depend upon the river for everything: for transportation, for their food supply, for bathing, for drinking. These are water-based communities that have been completely devastated.
I know that in this region babies are getting a horrible skin rash; however, Chevron/Texaco says that these illnesses are the result of sanitation issues and not oil pollution. How did you deal with both sides of the equation, and how do you know that there’s a direct connection between the elevated cancer rates that are seen in the Amazon and this oil contamination?
Joe Berlinger: You know, the thing that made me want to make this film in the first place was on our first scouting mission, we went by canoe to a village of the Cofan people–one of the five indigenous tribes that are part of this lawsuit–I noticed some village elders sitting by a fire near the river’s edge preparing a meal, and they were preparing a meal using cans of tuna: the kind of tuna that you would maybe buy at Costco or Best Buy in a giant, industrial-sized can. The cheapest, most processed kind of tuna you could imagine and this just kind of broke my heart because we were deep in the heart of the rainforest on a river, and these were people who have lived off the water for millennia and could no longer sustain themselves because the fish in the river were all dead. Whether it’s legal or illegal, that’s for someone else to decide, but it certainly is immoral in my opinion that the oil industry has gone into these areas, completely disregarded the indigenous populations [and] released toxic chemicals into the water supply. These communities have been devastated–there’s high rates of alcoholism, almost universal unemployment, a loss of their traditional cultures. In many ways, it’s a cultural genocide.
Your film follows two attorneys: one is from New York City, and the other is from the affected region in the Amazon. How did this legal framework shape your film?
Joe Berlinger: You know, one of the problems with this case is that there are a lot of highly paid lawyers, especially on the Texaco side, and there are study after study of conflicting and competing claims. Your head would spin if you looked at all the paperwork and all the tests. . . Again I’m not a lawyer or scientist, so I’m not here to say who’s right or wrong. The film portrays the issues and portrays the lawsuit, but I think any reasonable person could walk away with the conclusion that if you have a region with significantly high rates of cancer and soil and water contamination, that somehow the two issues are linked. The damage is due to poor sanitation as opposed to anything related to oil, and yet you see oil in the water; you smell it.

Really, it’s for the viewer to judge as to who’s right, but people have been systematically poisoned. The larger issue of the film is not who should win the lawsuit, but the larger issue that industrialization and oil production, whether it’s legal or illegal, has had a tremendous impact on these people. Basically they have been poisoned, and the area needs to be cleaned up.

In the film itself, we watch as the story grows and gets more and more tension and starts to be picked up by the international media. What are some examples of when you saw the outlook of the story change? What have you seen in your three years of filmmaking that you can consider as positive, and what are some positives since the film has been released?
Joe Berlinger: One definite positive outcome of the attention that the case was getting is that Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, came down for a visit and was horrified at what she saw with regard to the water supply. So she and her husband, Sting, have a foundation called the Rainforest Foundation, in collaboration with UNICEF, created a fresh drinking water/rainwater program in which they installed these large rainwater collection tanks with heavy filtration, because even the rainwater there is polluted because there’s a lot of black-rain phenomenon because one by-product of oil production is natural gas. And that natural gas is burned off into the air–all of which is legal, but it’s just another assault on the environment. It’s a band-aid solution because the groundwater is so heavily polluted. People are still living on top of toxic pits. The place is still a mess, but at least there’s a ray of hope in terms of the freshwater drinking project, which people can find out about and donate to if they go to our website, www.crudethemovie.com, there is a link to the rainwater program sponsored by UNICEF, and you can make a donation. Each of these tanks cost about $400. One of the things I’m proud of with this film is we’ve done a number of high-level screenings to do some fundraising. The film has raised several hundred thousand dollars for this freshwater drinking program.
How was the film received in Ecuador?
Joe Berlinger: I was stunned that so few people in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where–I forget the actual population, but a good deal of the country lives in Quito–most of them had never even heard of the case, and it was quite surprising to me. In fact, it was an incredibly moving moment for the film and for the case when we premiered the film in Ecuador. There’s a film festival in Ecuador called EDOC, which is a documentary film festival of Ecuador. It’s a nice little documentary film festival. When they saw the film, they were so enthusiastic and decided to make it the opening night film. In fact, they were so worried that they didn’t have the right seating capacity–because the normal theater they use fits about 500 people, and they knew there would be more people who would want to see this film–and so they actually opened up a theater that was dormant at the university that hadn’t been used in a decade, and they fixed up the theater and got it ready for the screening. It’s a 1200-seat theater, and I was told there were 1400 people jammed into a 1200-seat theater with people kind of hanging off the rafters to see the Ecuadorian premiere of Crude. We had done a Spanish–you know the film is primarily in Spanish with English subtitles–we had to make a version that the Spanish was not subtitled but the English was then subtitled into Spanish. It was an incredibly moving night. I mean, there was a line around the block; there was 1400 people. People were just overwhelmed by the film. Pablo got a 15-minute, you know the lead lawyer in the case, got a 15-minute hero’s ovation after the screening. But the comment that most people said when they came up to me afterwards–thanking me for caring about their country, thanking me for making the film–and that they were completely unaware of this case in their own backyard, which was shocking to me.
And how has the film been received since its release in the United States last September?
Joe Berlinger: In some ways, this film has been treated as an environmental film, but really for me it’s a human rights film. It’s a human right struggle, and I believe everybody is entitled to fresh drinking water. In particular, they’re entitled to the sovereignty of their own water. For multinational companies to come in and damage the water supply where people have been living for millennia, to me, is just morally unacceptable. Whether they’ve protected themselves with enough legal arguments to not lose the lawsuit that’s for somebody else to decide, but from a moral standpoint, to violate indigenous peoples’ rights to fresh drinking water is, to me, just morally unacceptable.
Joe, how can people get more information about your film?
Joe Berlinger: If people go to crudethemove.com, there’s a whole website devoted to the theatrical release where you can learn what theaters and what the dates are and sign up for our mailing list. I really encourage people to get involved in the film [which is also available on Netflix].

Thank you, Aubrey. Circle of Blue’s Aubrey Parker has been speaking with Joe Berlinger, director of the movie, Crude. It’s a film about oil, conflict and water in the Amazon. To learn more about the challenges in the Amazon and to find more articles and broadcasts on water, design, policy and related issues, be sure to tune in to Circle of Blue online at

Our theme is composed by Nedev Kahn. Circle of Blue Radio is underwritten by Traverse Legal, PLC. Internet attorneys specializing in trademark infringement litigation, copyright infringement litigation, patent litigation and patent prosecution. Join us again for Circle of Blue Radio’s 5 in 15. I’m J. Carl Ganter.

Aubrey Ann Parker is a reporter for Circle of Blue where she specializes in data visualization. Reach her at circleofblue.org/contact.

UPDATE: On May 24, 2010, according to Reuters, Chevron filed to dismiss environmental expert Ryan Cabrera from the case because the geologist violated his legal duties by having ongoing contact with plaintiffs’ representatives. Meanwhile officials from the Amazon Defense Coalition have said Chevron’s claims against Cabrera are another attempt for the leading energy company to evade liability.

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