August 10, 2010

Sugar and Spies

If you've checked out my Reel Life series you know I have a deep interest in relating real-world happenings with on-screen possibilities. As much as I enjoy considering which underreported news stories could blossom into captivating films, though, I also love hearing new updates on particular issues after movies have covered them. Recently I read two articles that related to films from 2009, and what I learned in both instances was surprising and disappointing. 

Last spring, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's little-seen baseball drama, Sugar, had what anyone would consider a rather poor public reception. The film received a healthy dose of buzz when it played Sundance back in January 2008, but by the time it landed in theaters last spring (advantageously right at the beginning of baseball season), some kind of moviegoing malaise had descended on American audiences. Oh, wait, nevermind - turns out people were just flocking in record numbers to Fast & Furious, because, you know, you can never see Vin Diesel smirk from behind the wheel of a sports car enough times. And so, while Sugar earned a superb 93% RT/82 Metacritic rating it only grossed a paltry $1.1 million at the worldwide box office. 

It was this disappointing show of interest from Americans (wasn't baseball once the national pastime?) that made a recent article I read in TIME all the more frustrating. Sean Gregory wrote a well-balanced piece about the professional baseball industry farmed out of the Dominican Republic ("Baseball Dreams: Striking Out in the Dominican Republic", 7/26/10), but not once did he mention Sugar, which, if you don't know, examines the professional baseball industry farmed out of the Dominican Republic. How is that possible? How do you write an article on this subject for a mass audience without discussing a recently acclaimed film that was shot on location in the very place you're researching your story?

One would think Gregory has seen Sugar or that he at least became aware of it while writing this piece (it's very possible he was interviewing extras from the film), so its omission is frustrating, and if I were Fleck or Boden I would probably be foaming-at-the-mouth mad. Why? Because for people who process information visually, watching a fact-based film is a lot more effective than reading 2,500 words of text. Sad, but this is our reality in 2010. Images are more cognitively familiar and easily digestible to the average person, and while you could lament the loss of language and literature in daily life, you could also celebrate the opportunities still available through images to connect people with the world. Movies like Sugar, even if they are not based on a specific real-life story, still have the potential to open minds and change perspectives on issues, particularly when - as evidenced by the article - they provide an accurate and intimate representation of those issues.

I know this is a long-winded overreaction to an otherwise nicely written article, but I become frustrated that culturally relevant films (and don't even get me started on documentaries) are always excluded from the national conversation. People will spend weeks debating the latest blockbuster, but smaller films with compelling messages are relegated to arthouses and film festivals. Movies like Sugar deserve better, even if just a mention in a magazine article.

And then there is the crude news I learned about Crude, my #2 documentary from 2009. If you haven't seen it yet you could easily get lost in the legal details as they're described, but to make it simple, just know there has been a decades-long battle in Ecuador between indigenous villagers and American oil corporations (now Chevron, but formerly Texaco before it was bought by Chevron). The villagers claim their community has been devastatingly polluted by spilled oil, while the corporations claim any damage in the past was the fault of the Ecudorian state-owned oil Company, PetroEcuador, which assumed responsibility for drilling some years back.

Anyway, the crux of the lawsuit is the validity of the villagers' claims that the severe spike in cancer rates in their community is a result of environmental changes brought on by the oil drilling. An independent expert was brought in to study thousands of case files and interview the plaintiffs, and the expert's verdict was that Chevron had caused damages to the tune of $27.3 billion.

A judgment has not yet been made that will actually require Chevron to pay this amount, but you can bet $27.3 billion that they have not been glumly searching for change in the couch cushions in the meantime. On the contrary, according to a report in The Atlantic by Mary Cuddehe ("A Spy in the Jungle", 8/2/10), Chevron has retained the services of Kroll, "the world’s leading risk consulting company" committed to helping "companies, government agencies and individuals reduce their exposure to risk and capitalize on business opportunities."

That's not surprising in any way, but what is surprising is how Cuddehe learned of Kroll's involvement: they tried to hire her as a spy (, "investigator"). She would travel to the villages in Ecuador, pose as an independent journalist, and then report back to Kroll whether the data and interviews that supported the high cancer rate were true. Apparently Chevron thinks the independent report was falsified, and that this entire suit is a money grab from an oil corporation at a time when oil corporations are almost universally loathed.

Was the report in fact true? Who knows, but the footage in the film is pretty hard to argue with. Is what Chevron is doing through Kroll legal? I believe so, and it's probably done by corporations on a daily basis. Most importantly, does this revelation take away from Crude's message about corporate responsibility? No way.

I believe in fair justice for all, but I have to admit I have little sympathy for companies who knowingly intrude on communities on foreign soil and then try to slip out of accountability when something goes wrong (at one point in Crude I believe a Chevron spokeswoman incredibly tried to blame the cancer rates on the poor hygiene of the villagers). So let's just say the emotional deck is stacked squarely against Chevron, and employing the services of a firm like Kroll - whose glossy recruitment of Cuddehe is not the way the world should work - doesn't paint them as the victim here.

The good news? Cuddehe reports that Kroll told her, "There is no other Mary Cuddehe. If you don't do this job, we'll have to find another way." Fortunately she maintained her journalistic ethics and declined the rather large sum they offered. For that I'll forgive her, just barely, for referring to Crude as "a pretty slanted and shoddy piece of filmmaking". After all, if it was that slanted I don't think the dominoes would have fallen and led to her being approached with this job in the first place.


  1. I totally agree with you regarding "Sugar," especially because those two filmmakers seem to show a great deal of respect with that film; they truly want to mirror what that life is actually like. You make a great point about how some of the interviewees could have been extras for the film.

    By the way, what do you think of Boden and Fleck's upcoming film? It feels different from their first two, no?

  2. Yeah they seem to be branching out a bit, which could be cool. I have to be honest I'm avoiding much about this new one (as I do with every movie before seeing it, I know I'm crazy), but the things that I find they do well should translate to a different genre, such as focus on character, efficient editing, etc. I'm definitely looking forward to it.


Related Posts with Thumbnails