November 30, 2009

REVIEW: Crude (A)

As I see it, the disappointing increase in popularity and production of Michael Moore-style "agit-docs" (agit, short for agitating) over the last few years has seriously threatened to diminish the credibility of actual documentary films. These days I unfortunately flinch whenever I hear about any new documentary that even appears to be about a social issue, because chances are it's going to be much more style than substance. 

Consider Hoop Dreams as an example, and think about how that same film would be produced in 2009. It would not be Steve James patiently and unobtrusively observing William Gates and Arthur Agee as two young boys trying to discover their potential. It would be an activist filmmaker abandoning their story in order to apply a blurry lens to the salacious societal ills on display on Chicago's South Side. There would be interviews with experts and celebrities and certainly Oprah, and a tidy list of "what you can do" chores would precede the credits. Everybody would leave feeling simultaneously horrified and puffed up with pride, but you'd have almost no insight into the actual life experiences of Gates and Agee.

I say all of this to explain why, almost regardless of who made it or what it's about, I am automatically suspicious that a "socially conscious" documentary in 2009 won't actually document a story so much as create one; propaganda is the tool that leads people to action, so people must be force-fed any message a filmmaker thinks we are too dense to understand on our own. As such, when I saw the ominous tagline for Crude ("The real price of oil."), I was ready to lump it in with the rest as an over-stylized, under-educating "call to action". Thankfully, I was completely wrong.

Filmed by director Joe Berlinger over the course of three years, Crude resembles A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich more than Food, Inc. or An Inconvenient Truth. It is a riveting and penetrating legal drama wrapped up in an urgent human interest story, and it takes itself serious enough to know that it doesn't have to demonize anyone or get you riled up in anger in order to engage you. Instead it gradually brings you into the heart of a legal battle and - in a practice far too uncommon these days - actually focuses on the people intimately involved in the story.

Granted, this is a situation so complex that trying to summarize it without the words of the people involved would be nearly impossible. So Berlinger takes a hands-off, cinéma vérité approach, simply observing the situation as it unfolds without adding narration or "expert" analysis. The short of the story is that is that a group of 30,000 Ecuadorians living in the Amazonian Rainforest filed a lawsuit against Texaco in 1993, alleging that the American oil corporation practiced unsafe and irresponsible oil drilling methods between 1964-1990, in the process permanently damaging the surrounding environment and sending local cancer rates skyrocketing. If this already sounds too legalistic for you, stop reading and move on to the next Michael Moore film.

If you are still interested, however, do yourself a favor and track down Crude for yourself to see how the story plays out. The trial was delayed for nearly a decade, and when it finally moved to Ecuador it continued under what most Americans would consider an informal, provincial legal system, with lawyers on both sides pleading their case to a judge in the middle of the rainforest. This part of the "David vs. Goliath" trial is where Crude actually begins, and Berlinger finds several dynamic subjects on which to focus his lens.

There is the idealistic American consulting attorney who is frustrated by the speed of the Ecuadorian legal system and who believes that if they can just get the new president of the country to visit the site, the case will blow wide open. There is the stubborn and brilliant Ecuadorian attorney for Chevron (which bought Texaco in 2001 and assumed liability of the lawsuit) who continues to contend that the oil damages, obvious to anyone who visits the rainforest, were the result of the company that drilled the land immediately after Texaco left. There is also an American spokeswoman from Chevron, who contends that there is no scientific proof that the oil in the area has caused any contamination in the first place, and that cancer rates have increased because of poor sanitation in the area.

Finally there is Pablo Fajardo, the young Ecuadorian lawyer filling the role of David in this epic battle. Fajardo is a disarmingly humble man who feels no inferiority to the Chevron legal team both because he knows he is well-versed in the law and he knows the evidence is in his favor. Though the legal advances he made during the course of this film have not yet led to an end to the trial (sorry for the spoiler), Fajardo has deservedly earned countless accolades, including the first-ever CNN Hero Award (which in my opinion should be forever named after the guy) and a Goldman Environmental Prize. His passion and optimism in the face of such an injustice to his people is admirable and uplifting; if the cliché of "one person can change the world" ever rang true, it would be in the case of Pablo Fajardo.

And that was the striking message that I took home from Crude. Great leaders, like Fajardo, understand that difficult problems can't be solved overnight, and they acknowledge that the failure to resolve a problem doesn't constitute a failure in addressing one. Sometimes it takes years, and sometimes you don't even see the end of the line, but that doesn't mean the effort doesn't make all the difference. If documentaries are going to continue to push agendas (and I don't believe Crude does, though it inherently focuses on one side of the issue), let's hope they spend less time preaching at us and more time inspiring us with examples of people who are actually doing what everyone else talks about doing.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 29/30= 97% = A


  1. I have to admit I may have misread this documentary and it didn't become clear to me until I made a recent post in favor of unbiased docs vs. activist docs.

    I went into Crude expecting an activist doc, but I'm thinking now it's really more of the former. I expected the film to prove that a big American oil company is evil and even though I already tend to believe that, I felt the film failed to make a satisfying case. I was especially bothered they focused so little of the film's focus on the Ecuadorian government's treatment of its own people.

    Lately though, I've come to think the film is more an examination of those very people and also of Fajardo. They're basically pawns in a bigger game played by richer nations. Whether it's an oil company, an activist US lawyer, a New York law firm, or the wife of an international pop superstar, these people are being used as long as it's convenient to do so.

    At the time though, I didn't see it that way. I thought the film spent way too much time on Trudy Styler and not nearly enough proving the facts of the actual case. I still think there's a good movie that does just that, but this one might be better.

    I'll have to see it again.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this, as you were one of the first people to bring Crude to my attention - and the first one to vocalize your disappointment with it.

    I think you make a great point about these people from developing countries (and Ecuador is not categorically "developing") being exploited by other nations. In fact the American attorney (I can't remember his name) says just that in a really candid and interesting monologue when he's sitting on the park bench, if you remember. There is an unfortunate history of American corporations going into other countries and ravaging communities, and he's right that this trial constitutes a major victory, even though it's not over. (Here's an interesting update on the case.)

    I cringed a little at the Styler/Sting involvement here, too, but I chuckled when Fajardo admitted that he'd never heard of The Police. That was a great moment. However, I have to give their foundation some credit for installing those water tanks, at least as a temporary solution.

    If you do see it again I'd love to hear more of your thoughts, especially about the Ecuadorian side of things. In the section about this lawsuit on Chevron's official website, they claim the villagers' suffering is being exploited by their own countrymen. Either way, I am so impressed by Pablo Fajardo. So impressed.

    Also, I can't believe I forgot to mention another documentary in the context of Crude. Total Denial came out a couple years ago and it tells a nearly identical story of a group of indigenous villagers in Burma launching a lawsuit against Shell Oil. Their fight was also led by a young activist, Ka Hsaw Wa, who was also a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Considering the similarities I can't believe that that film and that trial were not even mentioned in Crude. Go figure.

  3. Am I totally insane for thinking the Ecuadorian government bears some part of the responsibility in this?

    Granted, you can't really sue a government and Chevron likely has more money anyway, but still. If I followed what happened in the film correctly, the Government kicked the people off the land they wanted to lease out to Texaco. The people didn't want to leave so they stayed and suffered the health consequences.

    Even if I'm overstating Ecuador's culpability, it eventually became Chevron's main defense and if the film was interested in proving the case they would've done a better job attacking the claim.

    But again,I'm no longer sure that was the filmmaker's intention.

  4. Good point. I don't know if I would say the government was complicit, necessarily, but somebody somewhere should have been checking in on what was going on. Then again, what did they say there were 5 presidents in 7 years or something like that? Chances are somebody was being paid off (Chevron's new claim) or there just wasn't any oversight on what was going on at these sites.

    I understood that Chevron wasn't justifying their presence because the government allowed them in, but they were instead pointing the finger at PetroEcuador (a state business) for what Chevron claimed were unsafe practices after Texaco/Chevron left in 1990. And at the end of the film, Fajardo essentially says, "Well we'll go after PetroEcuador, too, but Texaco is the company that started the whole process here. Every company has to answer for itself."

    In any event, going back to the early 1960's does Ecuador still earn some blame for selling their land off? Perhaps, and like many other countries they learned the hard way about letting American business in the door. But while the government's decision may have caused problems for the displaced people, it doesn't excuse Texaco for the mess it left behind, and if Berlinger did have an agenda with Crude, I think that may have been it.

    In any case it's a fascinating case with a lot of unanswered and slippery questions. And I appreciated that Berlinger left it at that, unresolved and untidy; the epilogue about the case continuing on makes your head spin.

  5. Yes I definitely need to give this one a 2nd chance with a new perspective.

  6. Unrelated to this entirely - I just saw that this was my 500th post at Getafilm. Had I realized it at the time I would have tried to write a better review for this milestone, but in terms of the kinds of movies I want to focus on here, I'm glad it was this and not Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.


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