Oil And Water

'Crude' *** ( 3 Stars)

Documentary Explores A Class Action Lawsuit Filed By 30,000 In Ecuador Against Petroleum Giant Chevron

November 13, 2009|By Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan,Tribune Newspapers

"Crude" sounds like the standard "this is an outrage" environmental degradation documentary, the latest in a line that includes "An Inconvenient Truth" and films about the deaths of the oceans, the evaporation of water, the murder of dolphins, even the disintegration of dirt. "Crude" fits that bill, but it is something considerably more interesting as well.

The outrage in question is the subject of a class action suit filed by 30,000 residents of Ecuador against Chevron, the world's fifth-largest corporation, alleging that 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater were dumped into the Amazon between 1972 and 1990, fatally poisoning the land and water and sickening inhabitants. The lawsuit, with a potential cost to Chevron of $27 billion, has been going on for so long (16 years and counting) that the original American oil company in Ecuador, Texaco, was acquired by Chevron and no longer exists.

Director Joe Berlinger ("Brothers Keeper," "Metallica") has been working on "Crude" for three years, and though he feared he was coming too late to the story, a verdict is still not in sight.

"Crude" begins with a typical back-and-forth. In 2008, news clips show Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and his associate, Luis Yanza, receiving the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Then comes Chevron's reaction, as a representative says that the men have in effect made up the story for which they're being honored. What's going on here?

Next we see the charismatic Fajardo back in Ecuador and visiting a tiny Amazon enclave where the residents discuss the progress of the lawsuit.

We also spend a great deal of time with a Spanish-speaking environmental lawyer from New York named Steven Donziger, someone who specializes in class action suits and is a key legal adviser to Fajardo. We see and hear Donziger in all kinds of privileged situations, even with Joseph Kohn, the Philadelphia attorney whose firm is bankrolling the case and hopes to profit financially if Chevron loses.

Donziger not only discusses legal strategy but works hard to get the kind of publicity that will galvanize public opinion. His courtship of the forceful Trudie Styler, the co-founder, along with her husband, rock star Sting, of the Rainforest Foundation, is a study in real-world political action.

Chevron's strategy is twofold. First is the culture of denial. To see apparently sincere Chevron representatives flat-out contradict everything the plaintiffs are saying shows the power stonewalling has to, at the very least, create doubt.

Because that strategy doesn't work as well in Ecuador, where the damage is visible and hard to talk away, Chevron is ready with a moving-target series of fallback positions: Nothing was done that wasn't permitted by law, the Ecuadorean government signed off on a cleanup, most of the damage was done by the state-owned Petroecuador. Chevron also likes to claim that the only reason the suit was filed in the first place is because greedy U.S. attorneys are after the company's money.

It's true that the plaintiffs wouldn't have a prayer without American money and celebrity involvement, but does that mean their claims are any less just? It's still a David-and-Goliath story. What's different is that David now has some choice stones.

MPAA Rating: Unrated

Cast: A documentary directed by Joe Berlinger.

Credits: Released by First Run Features. Running Time: 1:45

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