Sundance Film Festival

Catching up with the CRUDE battle

(Photo credit: Brian Putnam/FilmMagic)

Two years after Joe Berlinger’s CRUDE premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the court battle at the heart of the documentary is still dragging on, and the film itself has shifted from neutral observer to central object of contention.

Today, the New York Times checks in on the controversy surrounding the film, examining clips from the 500 hours of unused footage shot for CRUDE that a federal judge forced Berlinger to turn over to lawyers for the oil giant Chevron, the Goliath figure in his film’s David-and-Goliath story. (The Times has posted clips here.)

Some experts say they find the outtake clips damning; others argue that they are at most a tactical distraction. But filmmakers, including Berlinger, worry about the effect that their compelled release will have on filmmaking. Berlinger told the Times that when young filmmakers got wind of his “astronomical legal bills,” they could well be scared off making similar films.

Alex Gibney, the director of “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” said the issue of trust between filmmaker and subject was also at stake. “I want to create that safe space where people feel like they can talk to me because they trust me to use their remarks in a way that’s properly contextualized,” he told the Times.

First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who wrote a brief opposing the forced turnover of the footage, said that, regardless of the content of the clips and their potential usefulness in a court battle, they should still be protected. “It is essential to the creative process that outtakes — even nonconfidential ones — be generally protected from disclosure and that they be ordered produced only when they are truly needed for use in a litigation,” he told the Times.