U.S. trial lawyers suing Bay Area-based Chevron over environmental damage in Ecuador thought they had scored a publicity coup when documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger agreed to produce a movie about their lawsuit.
But instead of a big public-relations prize, the resulting film, “Crude,” has turned into a legal disaster for the plaintiffs. More than 500 hours of outtakes from the movie submitted to U.S. courts show the lawyers and their Ecuadorean allies, consultants and activists manipulating public opinion and the judiciary in their pursuit of $113 billion in damages.
At a time when documentaries frequently serve as a tool in legal and environmental crusades against businesses, the “Crude” saga has revealed a cinematic reality: The truth is often less important than the cause.
Steven Donziger, the New York City attorney who has led the campaign against Chevron, wooed Berlinger, inviting him to Ecuador to tour pollution sites in 2006. Berlinger would bring a cachet to the project, having directed such award-winning films as “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.”
Berlinger, originally resistant, was sold.
“It just whacked you over the head,” Berlinger said in a 2009 Huffington Post interview. “I was embarrassed at being an American, if an American company did this.”
“Crude” was just one piece in the legal team’s aggressive public relations strategy that produced a major story in the May 2007 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, a one-sided segment by “60 Minutes” and years of sympathetic coverage by other major media outlets.
Berlinger portrayed Amazonian natives living in sickness and squalor, their tranquil way of life destroyed by Big Oil. The film lionized activists like musician Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, while Chevron’s representatives were portrayed as callous or clueless.
The anti-Chevron team had substantial editorial control of the film, and a major financial backer was Donziger’s Harvard Law School classmate J. Russell DeLeon, a founder of the online-poker firm PartyGaming.
The outtakes came into the court record after Chevron’s attorneys noticed scenes in a public screening that suggested an illicit arrangement between the plaintiffs and a court-appointed environmental expert. Those scenes were cut from the DVD version of the film.
Citing the editing as an indication of misconduct, Chevron’s attorneys went to U.S. federal court to gain access to other outtakes. Berlinger — joined by media companies, film associations and reporters’ organizations — claimed journalistic privilege allowed him to keep the footage confidential.
But Chevron and its lawyers facing criminal charges have a right to defend themselves, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in granting Chevron limited access to the footage, a decision upheld by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In one scene, Donziger contemplates surrounding the courthouse to pressure Ecuadorean judges, concluding, “It’s a critically important moment, because we want to send a message to the court that, don’t f--- with us anymore — not now, and not ... later, and never.”
Other scenes show the plaintiffs meeting with government officials to plot strategy. In a 2007 session, Alexis Mera, Ecuador’s secretary of judicial affairs, advises on pursuing a criminal prosecution to increase the pressure on Chevron and then spots the cameraman and exclaims, “Why are they filming? Why are they filming? That seems to me to be completely improper.”
Chevron used scores of similar “Crude” outtakes as leverage to force depositions and discovery from the plaintiffs’ team. The record now recounts U.S. trial lawyers pursuing not justice for Ecuadoreans, but simply hundreds of millions of dollars in a settlement. “Crude” footage now forms a major part of the company’s RICO suit against the plaintiffs.
In the end, the gloss of “Crude” could not disguise the reality of the litigation as a $113 billion shakedown.
Carter Wood, a former newspaper journalist, has blogged about the Chevron-Ecuador litigation on Shopfloor.org, the blog of the National Association of Manufacturers, his employer. This three-part series, which is based in part on material gathered in Ecuador on a trip funded by Chevron, reflects only Wood’s views, not those of NAM.