Documentary filmmakers rally around CRUDE director

CRUDE director Joe Berlinger.

Earlier this month, when a judge ruled that documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger was to turn over all 600-plus hours of footage he shot for his film CRUDE to the oil giant Chevron, which is seeking the footage to help the company defend itself from the litigation efforts depicted in the film, several of Berlinger’s fellow directors immediately expressed dismay at the decision and support for their colleague.

“It makes me shudder to think that all that stuff would be turned over,” documentarian Ric Burns (who produced THE CIVIL WAR (1990) with his brother Ken Burns) told the New York Times, “not because of any secrets that are revealed, but because of the killer blow to the trust a filmmaker cultivated, deeply, over a very long period of time.”

Burns contended that the ruling, if upheld, could have long-term effects. “Next time, there won’t be a CRUDE. There won’t be a film,” he said. “That’ll be good for Chevron, I guess. Because the next time you go, you’re going to have a much leerier group of informants.”

Michael Moore (of FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE) agreed. “The chilling effect of this is, someone like me, if something like this is upheld, the next whistle blower at the next corporation is going to think twice about showing me some documents if that information has to be turned over to the corporation that they’re working for,” Moore told the New York Times, suggesting that Berlinger resist turning over the footage “if he can.” He added, “I think that he’ll find that he’ll have the support of hundreds of filmmakers who will back him in this.”

While Moore has occasionally been accused of exaggerating for effect, in this case, his prediction proved to be spot-on.

Last week, the International Documentary Association rallied on Berlinger’s behalf, penning an open letter of support for the director and those who worked with him on CRUDE. The letter, which urges the higher courts to overturn the recent ruling, carries the signatures of some 200 documentary filmmakers, including Moore, Alex Gibney, Ken Burns and Davis Guggenheim. (Read the entire letter here.)

“While we commend Judge Kaplan for stating ‘that the qualified journalists’ privilege applies to Berlinger’s raw footage,’ we are nonetheless dismayed both by Chevron’s attempts to go on a ‘fishing expedition’ into the edit rooms and production offices of a fellow documentary filmmaker without any particular cause or agenda, and the judge’s allowance of said intentions. What’s next, phone records and e-mails?” write the letter’s authors, Patrick Creadon and Doug Blush.

They continue: “At the heart of journalism lies the trust between the interviewer and his or her subject. Individuals who agree to be interviewed by the news media are often putting themselves at great risk, especially in the case of television news and documentary film where the subject’s identity and voice are presented in the final report.  If witnesses sense that their entire interviews will be scrutinized by attorneys and examined in courtrooms they will undoubtedly speak less freely.  This ruling surely will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere, should it stand.”

Berlinger, for his part, told The Wrap that he was “deeply humbled and inspired by the level of support that my fellow documentarians have shown me over the past few weeks, and am grateful for the tremendous outpouring of support from people in all walks of life who feel that there is something deeply wrong here that needs to be addressed.”

The filmmaker is continuing his fight to hold onto his footage in court. “It’s not easy to take on this kind of challenge,” he said, “but knowing there are a lot of people out there who have my back has made it clear to me that appealing this is the only choice.”