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Joe Berlinger’s “Crude” New Film

Joe Berlinger’s “Crude” New Film (photo)

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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.

09032009_Crude6.jpgOn 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.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…