Spirit Award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger thinks of himself as a storyteller first and a journalist second, which explains why his documentaries are more cinematic than the norm. With his best friend and frequent collaborator Bruce Sinofsky, Berlinger has co-directed some of the more complex and gripping American docs in recent years, including the bizarre murder-trial exposés “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (along with the latter’s sequel), and the metalhead therapy session “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.”
But now Berlinger steps out on his own with “Crude,” a heartbreaking and compellingly multifaceted epic about the so-called “Amazon Chernobyl” case, in which 30,000 Ecuadorians — many from the Cofán Indian tribe — have spent three decades battling Texaco (now Chevron since 2001) for contaminating their water, land and air with a sludgy “death zone” the size of Rhode Island. Advocacy docs can sure sound like homework, but in Berlinger’s hands, the courtroom drama, field inspection, celebrity benefit concert and passionate participation all develop as thrilling real-time events, and the director is fair and wise to give Chevron their chance to represent themselves in the film. (Or, more like, giving them rope and standing back.) I spoke with Berlinger about his unlikely participation in the project, the impotence of advocacy docs, and why he and Sinofsky mostly now work independently of one another.
You’re not typically known as an activist filmmaker. Besides any emotional attraction you felt to this story, what convinced you to delve into these waters, no pun intended?
I went into the film kicking and screaming. The American attorney for the plaintiffs, Steven Donziger, came to see me in New York [in] August of 2005. All of my red flags started going up because, as you indicate, I’m a vérité filmmaker who likes to film things as they’re unfolding. I didn’t know yet there was going to be a trial. He was talking about 13 years of history, and I felt like maybe I missed the story. I said, “You know, I am not an agitprop, environmental, or humanitarian filmmaker.” 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. I said, “I may not be the right guy. Once you open the door to me, I’m going to be in control of the film. I’m not going to make propaganda for the lawsuit, even if I believe in the cause. It’ll be very important to have Chevron’s point of view in this.”
He was convinced that if I saw the pollution, I would want to make a film. The next red flag was, I was thinking to myself, “How am I going to raise money for this kind of a film?” It’s going to be mainly in Spanish about people in a far away country. Most Americans, when I tell them about this film, don’t even realize the rainforest is also in Ecuador. As silly as it sounds, since “Brother’s Keeper,” I have never started a project unless I knew who was paying [for] it, and/or who’s distributing it. I said to him, “This sounds more like a ’60 Minutes’ issues piece. You may want to go to them.” For some reason, he wanted me to go down and look. I went, and was horrified by what I saw. It was 10 times worse than he indicated. In fact, that’s one of the failings of the film. It doesn’t quite convey just how nasty, disgusting and pervasive the pollution is down there.
Maybe you could’ve mocked up some Odorama cards like John Waters did for “Polyester.”
Exactly, exactly. [laughs] The first day, Steven took me on what everyone in this case jokingly calls the “Toxi-Tour.” If it were true that an American company did this, I was embarrassed to be an American. I started feeling some of my rigidity of philosophy getting chipped away at. On the second day, we pulled up by canoe to this Cofán village, and I saw a bunch of villagers sitting around a fire, preparing a meal using canned tuna fish, the most industrial kind of tuna. But deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, people who have sustained themselves off of the river for millennia are eating canned tuna because all the fish in the river are either dead or diseased. That image, more than anything, just broke my heart. After leaving these people, this pollution, 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.
On the second trip, I met Pablo Fajardo, the young lawyer who’s leading the case in Ecuador. This guy walked into the room — a hero, whose every pore oozes the truth and a desire to help his people and do the right thing. I had the same feeling the first time I met James Hetfield [of Metallica]. Not that James is a hero, per se, but he has this charisma that perhaps the other guys don’t necessarily have, that you know you’re in the presence of somebody special. Here’s a character I could sink my teeth into. On the third trip, it became clear that these judicial inspections — which had been talked about for years, but had been delayed for almost nine years — were going to start happening just as I was deciding to make this film. I thought, okay, I have some present tense structure thing I can hang my hat on.
These are all such happy accidents that it sounds like you didn’t need to change your preferred approach too drastically.
One of the people I admire the most in this world is Michael Moore. He attracts an audience like nobody else, but there’s a singularity to his point of view. For me, to be consistent with my style, I had to subvert the conventions. Most advocacy filmmaking is not vérité but narrated, and does not allow multiple points of view for fear that those will divert people from the message they want to get across. Ultimately, a film is much more persuasive if you allow the audience to be like jury members, and let them come to their own conclusion by exposing them to multiple points of view. I have faith in my audience, and that the truth rises to the top. In “Paradise Lost,” about the wrongful conviction of three teenagers, some people were distressed that we allowed some disturbing stuff about [suspect Damien Echols] into the film. But you don’t have a truthful portrait unless you show warts and all, that his own narcissism didn’t help him on the stand, and his attitude is what allowed people to buy into this false story. In this film, the best way to be an advocate for the people is to have an incredibly truthful portrait to embrace a very complex subject, and there are some troubling aspects to this lawsuit [like] the legalese Chevron has wrapped itself up in. That doesn’t make them morally correct.