Dir. Joe Berlinger
(2009, Not Rated, 104 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

The world has changed a lot over the centuries, in some places more than others. What’s most interesting about Crude, a documentary about an inextricable civil lawsuit against oil giant Chevron, is how it highlights the differences between cultures, not just between the heroes and villains but between the heroes and the other heroes as well. An indigenous culture is caught in machinery it doesn’t recognize and can’t escape from.

Director Joe Berlinger, whose true-crime Paradise Lost films are among the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, follows another legal quagmire: the case against Chevron — formerly Texaco — over catastrophic pollution in the Ecuadoran rain forest. To call the area uncivilized would be a compliment; so-called civilization has done nothing but damage to the region. The people who live there drink the water from the rivers, raise livestock, are dependent on the land. Since Texaco first arrived in the 1970s, the local Amazonian tribes have been dying. Cancer has been rampant. Children develop debilitating skin conditions.

The case to bring Chevron to justice began in the United States and was only brought to Ecuador when the court granted a Chevron motion to do so. Chevron has limitless resources to argue, obfuscate, and delay. But the plaintiffs have their own legal pit bull, Steven Donziger. Berlinger does well to avoid making Donziger a heroic figure. On the contrary, he often seems as cynical as his opponents. In an early scene, he coaches an Ecuadoran victim on how best to address the Chevron board of directors, practically scripting his testimony word for word. Later, Donziger describes the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, Pablo Fajardo, as “naive,” trying to exploit a David vs. Goliath narrative for some good PR. Fajardo worked on the Texaco oil wells when he was younger and the injustices he witnessed inspired him to become a lawyer. His ideas of social justice are based on an idea of fairness and personal responsibility … but then he discovered the legal system.

The indigenous people don’t understand how the modern world works, and they were all the better for it. Concepts like liability and malfeasance are foreign to them; they want to drink the water they’ve always drunk, want their kids to stop dying; interviews with them cut through the convoluted legal maneuvering on both sides to reveal people who have been horribly victimized and are owed restitution. The details are a tangle of corporate interests that may also implicate the Ecuadoran government and the national energy company PetroEcuador. The resolution of the case may still be ten years away. By the end we long for the relative simplicity of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where the culpability was more nakedly obvious.

Chevron’s argument: Who are you gonna believe, a multimillion-dollar corporation or all those money-hungry poor people? The locals, when they first saw a helicopter overhead, didn’t know what it was. Is Chevron evil? No, not evil. Indifferent. Money is only interested in the accumulation of itself, whether it can be more easily done with altruism or recklessness. Sara McMillen, an environmental scientist for Chevron, seems to believe it reflects positively on the company when she argues that the industry standard has changed from how much cleanup can be done to how much cleanup one is legally obligated to do. Asphalt and gasoline contain hydrocarbons as well and don’t cause outbreaks of cancer, she says innocently. Yes, well, unlike the people on the Amazon river, we’re not forced to drink it.