Catching up with the "Crude" court case

When it premiered in January 2009 at the Sundance Film Festival, Joe Berlinger’s documentary CRUDE opened many filmgoers’ eyes to the plight of 30,000 people from five indigenous tribes in Ecuador. These residents of what had been a beautiful, biodiverse rain forest were suffering the effects of what has become known as the “Amazon Chernobyl,” in which, they and others contend, 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste had been dumped in their rivers and on their land. The water they drank, bathed and played in had been poisoned, and their children, siblings and parents were sick and dying in alarming numbers.

With the aid of lawyers and activists in the United States, the affected communities had filed suit against the company they believe is responsible for the environmental and human devastation: Chevron, one of the world’s largest oil companies, whose subsidiary Texaco operated in the region for two decades before leaving in the 1990s. Chevron has denied responsibility, contending that other factors — poor sanitation, the misdeeds of other companies — are to blame. The people, for their part, want desperately to have their day in court, a goal that has been supported by Barack Obama, who in 2006 signed a letter asking that the trial be allowed to proceed without American interference, though the then-senator refrained from taking sides in the case. (As recently as this month, the Los Angeles Times expressed concern that Chevron has tried to use its influence in Washington to prevent a trial.)

In the year since its debut, CRUDE has screened at festivals and theaters around the world — from Nashville to New Zealand, Mexico to Milan — moving audiences to tears and to action. (In a recent blog post on the Huffington Post, Berlinger recalls a young lawyer who approached him at a post-screening Q&A in New York not long ago, saying that the film had propelled her to rethink the sort of work she would dedicate her training and talent to.) It has won numerous awards including, just this month, the highest honor at Europe’s oldest environmental film festival, the Festival du Film International d’Environnement.

And what of the court case? Alas, while there has been much activity — Secretly recorded videotapes! Dramatic shareholder disclosures! Allegations of espionage! — there has been little progress toward a conclusion. In October, the New York Times observed that the case, with $27 billion in damages now on the line, was “unfolding more like a mystery thriller than a battle of briefs.” And it’s a mystery thriller that may have many more chapters. With so much at stake, neither side appears remotely willing to back down.

“We are going to defend this for many years to come,” warned Chevron spokesman Don Campbell in an October 2009 Al Jazeera TV interview. “This court case is going to go on for decades to come.”

But for the communities who have been affected by the toxic pollution, the fight for reparations is “a struggle for life,” Amazon Defense Coalition’s Luis Yanza countered, appearing on the same show. “The affected communities will continue to be united until we achieve justice based on the law and the Ecuadorian judicial system,” he added. “We will exhaust every possible legal remedy to see to it that there is reparation and that Chevron assumes its responsibility of making reparation for damages. Not doing so would mean condemning thousands of people to die of cancer, to drink contaminated water, to sacrifice many human lives, and that I believe no citizen of the world can allow.”

CRUDE is still screening at festivals and cinemas nationwide. For upcoming dates, click here.