Thursday, September 3, 2009

"CRUDE" Review

During the Sundance Film Festival, Variety published a positive, two-paragraph review of Joe Berlinger's new documentary "Crude." The writer called it a departure from the "intimate nonfiction dramas of his prior features ("Brother's Keeper," "Paradise Lost," "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster")." Now, I wouldn't necessarily call "Metallica" intimate. To me, it was more of an epic chronicle, albeit a psychological one. And Berlinger has obviously tackled issues of social injustice before in "Paradise Lost" and its sequel. So needless to say, I disagree with Variety's assessment. After watching "Crude," it's clear to me that Berlinger's talent is not limited to the scope of his films or to a particular subject matter. He simply excels at what he does because he is a keen, patient observer of human behavior, which is precisely the reason he favors verité. He keeps the cameras rolling not to capture some unexpected drama or conflict (as filmmakers bred on reality TV conventions are wont to do) but rather because he's waiting for the moment when a subject will reveal the inherent human complexity within. This remarkable skill is what elevates "Crude" from a mere issue-oriented documentary to a fascinating study of activists rising beyond their limitations to fight catastrophic corporate neglect.

The story concerns a landmark class-action suit (sometimes referred to as the "Amazon Chernobyl case") leveled against oil giant Chevron by 30,000 indigenous people of the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. The plaintiffs charge that Texaco - which Chevron took over in 2001 - knowingly and systematically contaminated an area the size of Rhode Island during the three decades they conducted operations in the jungle. This led to an alarming rise in birth defects, skin diseases, cancer, and the destruction of the inhabitants' way of life. The film focuses primarily on the actions of two of the plaintiff's lawyers: lead attorney Pablo Fajardo, an Ecuadorian native who never litigated a case before, and consulting attorney Steven Donziger, a contrasting and idealistic American from the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The case - mired in jurisdictional battles and other legal delays - had been going on for 13 years by the time Berlinger arrived in Ecuador (sans his frequent collaborator Bruce Sinofsky - they're still friends, I hear). So the film chronicles the two subsequent years, purported to be the final stage of the case and in which on-site inspections are conducted by a judge and lawyers from both sides. These scenes, which make up the bulk of the film, show Trujillo admirably going mano a mano with the defense lawyer, Adolfo Callejas, who is faced with the unenviable task of defending a foreign corporation who has seemingly committed woeful neglect in his own country's soil. This culturally complex dynamic is one of the many pleasures of "Crude."

The fact that this non-courtroom, legal drama unfolds right smack in the middle of the jungle provides a rich tapestry of detail for Berlinger to explore. During the legal proceedings, his camera/eye wonders to a band of children carrying protest signs, their faces bewildered by the circus atmosphere, or to a contaminated goose close to death wriggling in pain, or to the defense lawyer's face in close up, framed against wild flora, listening to damning evidence and struggling to maintain his indignant facade. Indeed, "Crude" doesn't try to an objective piece of cinema. In the opening minutes, we see a TV report that shows a young girl pulling a tree branch out of an oil-covered pond. The oil is so thick it stretches like taffy. The image is so powerful as to negate anything said by Chevron reps throughout the rest of the movie. And I'm fine with that. Berlinger is obviously a biased reporter, so why pretend to be something he's not? If you want a fair exposition of both sides of a story try "60 Minutes." Berlinger's films are after something more subtle and interesting - people's behavior in the face of stressful or extraordinary situations.

Just like in his previous films, Berlinger's patient approach pays off in "Crude." In a powerful scene, an indigenous woman breaks down on-camera while talking about the struggle of taking care of his 19 year-old, cancer-stricken daughter. In that extremely intimate moment, the presence of the cameras never felt invasive. Rather, they provided a forum for her to finally share her incredibly real and heartbreaking emotions. In another memorable scene, Pablo Fajardo is shown a copy of a Vanity Fear article that features full-page glossies of him. The camera lingers on Fajardo's face as he reacts. At first he giggles playfully, but soon laments the fact that the article didn't include a picture of a sick family he instructed the photographer to take. "They are the very expression of the problem," he says, selflessly putting the issue in perspective. It is these rare moments that define the true character of the film's subjects and give the film its enormous soul.

When Berlinger interviews several Chevron executives and environmental reps he shoots them in extreme close ups. He's obviously not interested in the drivel they're saying but rather in what they're not saying - so he probes, visually, for clues to their humanity. The technique worked and I found myself watching them intently and wondering if these people were also victims of a different kind. Perhaps the same rampant corporate greed that ruins precious ecosystems is also capable of transforming perfectly decent people into corrupt automatons.

The difference between Berlinger and a filmmaker like, say, Werner Herzog, who has captured the Amazon in numerous documentaries, is that Berlinger does not impose his creative ideas on the subject matter and turns them into an expression of his poetic sensibilities. I admire them both very much but they have very different styles. Berlinger works with whatever materializes in front of his camera and constructs the film accordingly. He also seems very comfortable working within certain narrative conventions. "Paradise Lost" and "Crude" can easily be described as "legal dramas" and indeed they succeed in sustaining a high level of intrigue, but he also gives us much more. Taking full advantage of the medium (his cinematographer, Juan Diego Pérez deserves much praise as well for his almost tactile photography), he vividly SHOWS the effect of the devastation on these poor, tribal communities, the corruption of the legal system in Ecuador, and Chevron's bullying legal maneuvering, which essentially consists of filing motion after motion to make the case drag on until the plaintiffs run out of money.

The result is an engrossing documentary that works incredibly well as both as a legal thriller and as a cautionary tale of the human cost of corporate greed. For these two things to co-exist so well on screen requires a director with a lot of talent and soul. Berlinger has those qualities in spades.

"Crude" opens in NY on September 9 and in Los Angeles on September 18. It will roll out gradually to other cities throughout the fall.