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Crude examines the 'Amazon Chernobyl'

Director Joe Berlinger's film is a class act(ion)

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In the documentary Crude, Brothers Keeper director Joe Berlinger presents a courtroom drama that never takes place in a courtroom. The grim but engrossing film recounts the tactics and history of a civil lawsuit filed by thousands of native Ecuadoreans who allege that Texaco (now Chevron) polluted vast areas of the rain forest with oil, leading to contaminated drinking water and high cancer rates.

Crude primarily follows two lawyers, towering Manhattanite Steven Donzinger and diminutive Ecudorean Pablo Fajardo, as they try to keep the case alive following more than a decade of legal maneuvers and stalling tactics. Since part of the trial process includes judicial inspections in the rainforest’s polluted areas, Crude features unusual scenes of Fajardo arguing his case against Chevron’s counsel in open-air clearings before dilapidated-looking pipes and thick underbrush.

Crude captures some of the nuts-and-bolts of a multi-billion dollar, hemisphere-spanning case. At one point, Donzinger hangs out in his socks in a hotel room, coaching one of the plaintiffs on how to present his story to Chevron’s board of directors. Crude both reveals and subscribes to the methods the lawyers use to argue their case, like employing phrases such as “David and Goliath battle” or describing the pollution as “30 times worse than the Exxon Valdez.” The American lawyer and the documentarian both appreciate Fajardo’s appeal as a passionate underdog on which a complex narrative can be hung.

Berlinger doesn’t hide his sympathies and opens his film with an Ecuadorean woman singing a lament, in the traditional style, about the desperate plight of her village. Crude occasionally turns the camera to Chevron’s experts to provide a he-said-she-said side of the case. One environmental specialist, with apparent sincerity, offers alternate explanations to the Ecuadorean’s health problems and maintains that Chevron does not deserve culpability. Crude's viewers, however, are more likely to be moved by the anguished mother who lives atop visibly sludgy earth and struggles to pay for her child’s exorbitant cancer treatments.

Crude’s battle also takes place in the court of public opinion, as Donzinger tries to draw the Western media’s attention to Ecuador’s plight and put additional pressure on the multinational oil company. Ironically, winning attention from Trudie Styler, an environmental activist who happens to be the wife of tree-hugging rock star Sting, proves to be as much of a triumph as a visit from Ecuador’s sitting president. Given that the case has dragged on for years without definitive resolution, Crude suggests that the audience and the Ecuadoreans should enjoy such victories where they find them.

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