Film review: Crude (MFF 2009)

Entendre Films, Radical Media, Red Envelope Entertainment, Third Eye Motion Picture Company

PRODUCED BY Joe Berlinger, Michael Bonfiglio, J.R. DeLeon, Richard Stratton
DIRECTED BY Joe Berlinger
SHOT BY Pocho Alvarez, Joe Berlinger, Michael Bonfiglio, Juan Diego Pérez
EDITED BY Alyse Ardell Spiegel
MUSIC BY Wendy Blackstone
DISTRIBUTED BY Entendre Films, Radical Media, Red Envelope Entertainment, Third Eye Motion Picture, First Run Features

Screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival, 2009-09-26

Remember how Texaco dumped more oil than the Valdez spill into some pits in Ecuador over decades and gave thousands of humans and wildlife cancer and other terminal maladies? …No? Ah, that’s why they made Crude. Ecuadorian lawyer Pablo Fajardo teamed up with fairly brash but usually endearing Houston lawyer Steven Donziger to bring a class action lawsuit to Chevron (Texaco merged into Chevron in 2001) for $27 billion in damages to 30,000 Ecuadorian natives. Malcontent to part with that sum, Chevron protects itself the best way it can, primarily by dragging the case out indefinitely and bankrupting those involved. I’m sorry to say that this strategy has been highly effective thus far (the case began in 1993) but Crude demonstrates major progress made in only a few recent years (2005-7ish) – although estimates claim the case could take another decade to be resolved. Crude begins as a familiar underdog story with our two hot emotional lawyers, but becomes more exciting as more momentum is gained, and bigger names become involved: starting with a spread in Vanity Fair magazine, propelling into an unprecedented visit from Ecuador’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Rafael Correa, and the sun finally shines in thanks to the efforts of charitable champion Trudie Styler (married to Sting). It is quite the surprise to see Fajardo on a major American television network receiving CNN’s “Hero’s Award” in 2007. What can I say? Fajardo is a hero. He was brought up in some pretty extreme poverty but his ambition carried him through law school. He even suffered through the torture and murder of his brother, collateral damage in a litigious battle (apparently his assailants had meant to apprehend Fajardo).

Intentionally or not, the film’s greatest impact ends up being a demonstration of the progress caused by celebrity involvement. From the beginning, the underdog lawyers are reaching out all around them to find the right set of ears – knowing that anybody with enough authority who saw their side of the argument would recognize evil and would not sit still. It can be argued that celebrities have too much time on their hands… so maybe this is literally what they should be doing. Trudie Styler’s involvement was the best thing that happened to Fajardo and the Ecuadorian Cofán village. Celebrity involvement – and the efforts of super video journalists, of sorts, like Joe Berlinger. Director Berlinger has previously chronicled and questioned justice in his documentary and television work, most notably the films Brother’s Keeper and the Paradise Lost films exposing the West Memphis 3. Here’s to Joe! Excellent work, again, at bringing this to our attention.

written by David Ashley