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Looking for Justice

by Shawn Stone on February 18, 2010

Crude
Directed by Directed by Joe Berlinger

Once upon a time, Texaco arrived in the Ecuadorian Amazon to drill for oil. The company left a few decades later, leaving behind either a little bit of pollution (says successor company Chevron), or an environmental disaster that’s still sickening and killing the indigenous population. Joe Berlinger’s verité-style documentary makes a good case that petroleum pollution is still having devastating effects on people, but the legal thicket the film covers is murkier, and is both inspiring and depressing.

Crude chronicles how a team of lawyers from Ecuador and the United States press on with a 13-year-old class-action lawsuit against Chevron/Texaco. Filed on behalf of 30,000 plaintiffs, the case has a twofold desired outcome: a huge cash settlement and environmental remediation. The charismatic lead attorney is Pablo Fajardo; only three years out of law school when we meet him, he is a dogged advocate for his people. The American legal muscle is provided by Steven Donziger, a bulldog of a lawyer who isn’t afraid to fight dirty. And the money comes from a Philadelphia law firm that’s banking on a big slice of any judgment (or settlement).

Berlinger, who codirected the wonderful documentaries Brothers’ Keeper and Some Kind of Monster, never lets one part of this sad story dominate. There is a goodly share of heartbreaking testimony by parents of sick or dead children, and he takes us right to the edges of the waste pits Texaco left behind—where animals and birds still die of petroleum poisoning. The editorializing is subtle but unmistakable; we know where Berlinger’s heart is.

The oil company lawyers, scientists and spokespeople are predictably reasonable-sounding. Their arguments are calm and considered; a few of these people are even a little bit convincing. But most come across as soulless assholes.

The saga has plenty of twists and turns as both sides play the media game. The plaintiffs end up featured in a Vanity Fair profile; Sting’s activist wife makes an appearance. It’s a weird moment of recognition, watching the sick and dying trotted out for wealthy celebrities and realizing that we have a hell of a lot more in common with the latter than the former.

We’re the ones driving the cars and trucks fueled by Chevron, after all.