(2009)4Nathan SouthernCrude constitutes Joe Berlinger's account of Texaco's alleged pollution in Ecuador -- massive oil spills that reportedly contributed to tens of thousands of cases of illness and an untold number of deaths, and nearly extinguished the population of an entire village. The film devastates the audience almost by default. Without falling into excess, Berlinger repeatedly turns his camera on images that shake us to our core, from a newborn infant covered from head to toe with a deforming rash from an oil spill to shock cuts to slow-dying animals helplessly writhing in pitch-black oil slicks. And as the film rolls forward, it generates an overwhelming amount of suspense regarding the outcome of the class-action lawsuit brought on by some 30,000 Ecuadorians against Chevron-Texaco...a case that, according to the film, the oil giant dragged out for over 13 years, financially straining the defendants' attorneys in the process. Most importantly, the director's level of empathy for the Ecuadorians could not possibly be greater.
On all of these levels, Crude triumphantly succeeds, but it grows transcendent when it begins delving into the other side's insinuations. Aside from Sara McMillan, an environmental expert employed by Chevron whose canned statements and stone-faced stare suggest little to nothing in the way of credibility (Berlinger occasionally disproves what she's saying by following interview clips with shots that undercut them), a number of Chevron's arguments imply that a tremendously complex situation lies at the heart of this matter. Consider, for example, the notion that the Ecuadorian state-owned oil company Petroleos del Ecuador may have caused the greatest problems through ineptitude. Or the notion that fecal matter in Ecuadorian water may also have contributed to a substantial amount of local illness. Or the fact that Chevron-Texaco reportedly engaged in a massive clean-up effort with step-by-step procedures used to clean up polluted areas, efforts Texaco claims were undone when Petroleos del Ecuador arrived. And yet, it grows even more ethically murky than this, with the revelation that the Ecuadorian government reportedly gave Texaco written and signed permission to do much of what it did in that country.
This murkiness and complexity shouldn't come as a surprise to those familiar with Berlinger's prior work. One of his hallmarks as a filmmaker, for each project, is his ability to perceive multiple perspectives tied to the same issue or subject without losing his humanist core. For that reason, one expects a certain level of multidimensionality upon walking into one of Berlinger's films, and he gives it to us here in spades. In the final analysis, generating sympathy for the victims in this case feels like a default, but by pushing the issue into the gray areas -- complexities other directors might well have overlooked -- Berlinger continues to assert himself as the master of his craft and a documentarian resolutely opposed to oversimplification.