Here’s the context for today: oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico with no apparent end in sight. One solution being tried out involves lowering a gigantic dome onto the gushing leak (shades of “The Simpsons Movie”), which BP chief executive Tony Hayward isn’t overly optimistic about. “It’s only one of the battle fronts,” he said. “This is like the Normandy landing. We know we are going to win. We just don’t know how quickly.”
Clearly, this would be the best possible time for another oil company to sue someone getting in their face, and sure enough Chevron has obtained a subpoena for outtakes from “Crude,” Joe Berlinger’s 2009 documentary about toxic oil and waste contamination in the Amazon. Specifically, they now have the right — pending appeal, natch — to run through all 600 hours of raw footage for evidence of misconduct by lawyers for the indigenous people. Charges of toxic damage? Not important. Procedural stuff? All important.
Admittedly, Berlinger is sometimes a difficult guy to root for. As he told IFC.com last year, he had a falling out with his co-director and longtime partner on docs like “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” and “Paradise Lost” (though the two are still friends) and of course, outside of the documentary world, he bears some responsibility for the infamous “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” even if the studio recut it. In the same interview, he discussed why he was initially averse to entering into “Crude.”
“I am not an agitprop filmmaker,” Berlinger told the lawyer who approached him. “Most of my other films have social issues in them one way or another, but my style is to let the viewer make up his or her own mind, and not bang a single-minded message over your head — which is more the approach of the human rights kind of filmmaker.” But when he got down there, he was “horrified” by what he saw. “After leaving these people, this pollution,” he said, “and talking to mothers with a look of horror in their eyes at the knowledge that they’re giving their children poisoned water, but have no choice… I knew I had to point a camera and try to help these people. Otherwise, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror.”
There’s something unnerving about the spectacle of a major corporation unleashing heavy-duty litigation and invoking specious legal concerns to crush a movie whose worldwide theatrical gross was under $200,000. Similarly, last year Dole sued the film “Bananas!*” for having the temerity to assert their practices in Nicaragua weren’t completely savory. In both cases, the number of people who see these movies and get outraged will be a minuscule dent against a huge corporate interest; nonetheless, the companies thought it was worth their time to preemptively shut them down. (Still, “Bananas*!” will be released later this year by Oscilloscope.)
Given the large number of American movies that proceed from the starting point that any monolithic corporation is unspeakably evil and not to be trusted, this is kind of surprising. After a screening of “Michael Clayton,” I overheard a man say “This kind of shit happens every day and we don’t even know about it.” Maybe it’s that hostile attitude that’s making corporations a little punchier about covering their legal options. With the image of corporate America under assault, making activist documentaries may have suddenly become a much more dangerous business.
[Photos: “Crude,” First Run Features, 2009; “Bananas!*,” Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010.]