Jessica Lee on the Documentary Crude Lawsuit
Independent Films, Social Responsibility Movies
Chevron Corp. is trying to obtain 600 hours of outtakes from Joe Berlinger, the director of Crude - a documentary film focused on its business practices in Ecuador. The action sparked a court battle that has attracted the attention of First Amendment lawyers, top filmmakers, show business unions and a corporation that says it was defamed in another nonfiction film. For seven years, Chevron has fought a class-action lawsuit in Ecuador that could cost it up to $27 billion in damages and cleanup costs. Lawyers for Chevron are convinced that the environmental contamination litigation is tainted, alleging that an expert was not impartial, a report was fabricated and a judge was bribed. When Chevron saw director Joe Berlinger's 2009 documentary "Crude," a behind-the-scenes look at the lawsuit, the company believed it had found cinematic proof of misconduct - and demanded to see everything else Berlinger discovered in the three years he spent making the film. Some documentarians say Chevron's action against Berlinger, the focus of an oral argument Wednesday before the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York, is part of a movement to marginalize nonfiction filmmakers by subjects unhappy over how they have been depicted. Earlier this year, Chevron asked U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan to compel Berlinger to hand over the outtakes. In May, Kaplan ruled in Chevron's favor, but the order was stayed pending the appeal. Kaplan dismissed Berlinger's argument that the interviews were confidential, meaning he couldn't claim that they were closely protected by a journalist's privilege, which (like an attorney-client relationship) in some cases prevents reporters from having to surrender their notes. The judge also said he did not believe Berlinger's "activities as a filmmaker would be unduly burdened" by having to surrender the extra footage. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments about overturning or affirming Kaplan's ruling and could rule in just a few weeks. Last year, Dole sued Swedish filmmaker Gertten, arguing that his 2009 documentary film "Bananas!(ASTERISK)" a look at litigation involving the produce company's alleged misuse of a pesticide in Nicaragua, "promotes as fact a false story" and ignored a judgment in the case against Dole that was dismissed as fraudulent. Like "Crude," Gertten's film followed a plaintiffs' lawyer - in this case, the prolific bus advertiser Juan Dominguez - who allowed Gertten to shadow him. Dole withdrew the suit in October, but is still displeased with how the food giant was treated in the film. "Both 'Bananas!(ASTERISK)' and 'Crude' are part of the growing trend of plaintiffs' lawyers using a supposedly factual documentary film in a public campaign seeking to discredit the targeted defendants," Dole said in its friend-of-the-court brief. "Documentary filmmaking is still the last bastion for truth telling," Gertten said. "It's very sad that Dole has now shown their support for Chevron's attack on Joe Berlinger."
On July 15th - The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ordered Berlinger to turn over footage not included in the publicly released version of the movie. Appearing in the outtakes are lawyers for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Chevron, private and court-appointed experts in the suit, and current and former Ecuadorian officials.
Year of Production: 2010
Country: United States