CRUDE director "blown away" by outpouring of support

The shooting crew of Crude in the Ecuadorean Amazon with director Joe Berlinger (R).

Oral arguments begin today in the appeal of the Joe Berlinger/Chevron case, in which the oil behemoth is suing the filmmaker for all 600 hours of footage shot for his 2009 documentary CRUDE, about the company’s legal battle with a group of Ecuadorians who accuse it of contaminating their land and water. On the eve of the big hearing, in which Berlinger is seeking to have overturned an order that he hand over the footage, two more prominent entities stepped forward to express their support for the filmmaker, further proving that the David in this David-and-Goliath legal struggle represents the interests and sympathies of many and is not exactly fighting the giant alone.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Cinema for Peace Foundation have both released open letters penned on Berlinger’s behalf, adding their voices to those of many others who have already spoken out about the case. (Mainstream news companies, including the Associated Press, CBS, Dow Jones, Gannett, Hearst, HBO, NBC, New York Times and the Washington Post, among others, and film organizations including the International Documentary Association, the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, have filed briefs in support of Berlinger for today’s hearing.)

In a letter addressed to Berlinger’s attorney, Maura Wogan, the Executive Committee of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences contends that “more is at stake than simply the fate of Mr. Berlinger’s raw footage,” adding, “Chevron’s attempt to gain access to 600 hours of documentary film material — and the court’s ruling in support of this — jeopardizes one of the fundamental tenets of investigative journalism, both on film and in print.”

The letter’s authors express concern that a decision to uphold a previous ruling in favor of Chevron “could have far-reaching, potentially devastating consequences for this time-honored privilege and for the bond of trust between journalist and subject which it is designed to protect and preserve.”

Urging the court to overturn the ruling “in order to ensure the safety and protection of all journalists and their subjects, and to promote a free and vital press in our nation and around the world,” they write: “A journalist’s sources are essential to any work that challenges the status quo or reveals injustice. In order for documentary filmmakers and journalists to do their jobs, they must gain, and be prepared to honor, the trust of their sources, people who come forward to tell their stories often at great personal risk to themselves and their families. Such material, whether or not it appears in the completed work, has historically been covered by ‘reporter’s privilege,’ the First Amendment right protecting journalists and their subjects from arbitrary discovery.”

A second letter, sent by the Cinema for Peace Foundation and signed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Mikhail Gorbachev, Woody Allen and Michael Moore, among others, expresses similar sentiments: “We urge the higher courts to overturn this ruling to help ensure the safety and protection of journalists and filmmakers and their subjects and to ensure freedom of opinion in the U.S. and around the world. We ask for: Respect for the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, protection of free journalists/filmmakers and their sources, continuance of basic democratic rights and culture and that all oil corporations take full responsibility for verified pollution, damage and costs, in the Gulf of Mexico as well as in the Amazon and other parts of the world.”

Berlinger, for his part, says he’s encouraged by the outpouring of support he has received. “I have been blown away and so humbled by the level of support that this case has engendered,” he told Sundance Channel on Tuesday. “The corporate intrusion into the rights of filmmakers has not only touched a nerve in this country but, as evidenced by the Cinema for Peace letter, has become an international issue of concern.”

Joe’s film CRUDE will have its TV premiere on Sundance Channel in 2011 and Joe continues to produce and direct the Sundance Channel Original Series ICONOCLASTS with his filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky.

Don’t miss Robert Redford’s interview about the case on CNN.