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raymac Written by raymac
Sep. 18, 2009 | 10:39 AM

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An Interview with Joe Berlinger, Director of CRUDE

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So how did you first become involved in the film?

The lawyer for the case, Steven Donziger, came to my office in Manhattan and knocked on my door.  We have a mutual friend and he started to tell me about the case and it wasn’t to me an obvious film. In fact, you could say that I got dragged kicking and screaming into the Amazon rainforest and that this was not a film that I would necessarily want to get involved in. First of all, a plaintiff’s attorney, of course, would have an agenda.  I don’t know if you’ve seen my other films, but my films are ambiguous and I allow the viewer to come up with their own point of view and their own conclusion. I felt like the agenda of the lawyer and my style would be inconsistent. He was talking about a 13 year history of this case and I, as a present tense verite filmmaker, like to sink my teeth into present day action. I was overwhelmed by all the facts and figures. I didn’t think that this would be consistent with my style.

I was also concerned with how to pay for it. He wasn’t offering money and it wasn’t going to be a film for him. He was just trying to get an independent filmmaker interested in the piece. I barely knew where Ecuador was. After the meeting, I had to go and check a map to see whether it was in Central America or South America. So I figured that my audience would have the same lack of concern or interest in the subject, so how would I raise money for this. I did a film in 1991 called BROTHER’S KEEPER and Bruce Sinofsky and myself maxed out a dozen credit cards and took second mortgages on our homes and really rolled the dice. Luckily, it paid off but it was still a huge gamble with everything we had. I thought to myself, I did that once, I need to know who is paying for the movie and where it is being seen before I start a project in the future.

I said to him. That this might be better as a 60 minutes piece but he was very persuasive and he brought me down to the Amazon rain forest.  I was stunned by the level of pollution I saw. It was far worse than he had articulated. There were hundreds of these unlined pits of petroleum waste that were sitting in the jungle for decades leaching into the water supply. There are skyrocketing rates of cancer. Tremendous impact on indigenous people that I thought was just shocking. You walk around these villages and all of their water is poisoned. We’ve disconnected them from their traditional way of life because there are no more fish in the river and the animals in the forest are gone.  We tease them with western ideas and then leave and abandon them. So despite all this hesitation, I was so dumbfounded by what I saw. I was embarrassed to be a white person, so embarrassed to be an American. That it was true that a company did this. I thought, this film may not fit all of my aesthetic criteria of cinema-verite, I might not get financing right away and I’m not really sure that there is a film to be made but by the time I got back home and thought about the images that I had just seen, not to sound clich?, but how could I look at myself in the mirror and turn my back on what I saw.  I did a little research and realized that no one was telling their story. These people were in year 13 of a struggle and needed some help. I am in a different place then I was with BROTHER’S KEEPER. I am in the middle of my career. I do a TV show called ICONOCLAST and television commercials so I make a living as a filmmaker and so maybe it was time for me not to worry about all of my issues and it was time to give something back.  Admittedly, I didn’t think that this would become a theatrically released Sundance film which was gratifying. I thought that I would just go down, point a camera and see what happens. Maybe it would just be handing off footage to people who needed help so that I could feel that I did not turn my back on these people.

That was how it started. When I gave into that feeling and let go of my criteria, then like magic, everything started to click into place. Things that I was concerned about like a strong central character. This film centers around Pablo Fajardo, who is an Ecuadorian, was from the region and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, got himself educated, saw the injustices all around him and found himself at the center of this lawsuit where, he, a young 35 year old lawyer, was having his first legal case against the fifth largest company in the world, Chevron, as the lead attorney. So it is this great David and Goliath story that I was not anticipating. The other thing that clicked into place was that they were talking about these field inspections, having the trial take place out in the field and that could have gone on for years before it was approved. When I committed to making this film, things started happening and now I had as a verite style filmmaker, this trial going on in the middle of the jungle with lawyers, in jungle clothes, arguing both sides of their case in front of these massive pollution sites. I was worried about having present tense action and here it was. Even the financing started to fall into place. I shot for about a year on my own, pulled together a little fundraising teaser trailer and was able to raise a respectable budget to make the film. All those things that I was worried about had clicked into place. Halfway though I got excited because not only was this an important story to tell but I thought that it could actually be a cool film on the level of my past works.

Given that you had such a compelling central character, did make it more difficult for you to do a balanced story especially since the other side is a giant faceless corporation?

The film has been praised for its balance. It is an advocacy film for the people and not for the lawsuit. There is a surprising amount of representation from the other side. I think the central character helped me to make a compelling narrative, it didn’t block me from showing both sides. I think the film is very balanced. It’s neutral about the lawsuit.

Given that you were making this film in the middle of this “death zone” were you concerned about the health of yourself and your crew? If so, what precautions did you take?

Great question. This is the hardest film I ever made and I’ve shot all over the world. First, you had a 120-degree equatorial heat because we were right at the equator. So it was hot as shit! We were also in a malaria zone. So in addition to the heat, I had to wear very heavy clothing and covered myself up and the crew with 100% Deet bug spray. The first trip, my doctor advised me to take this stuff called Malarian which is an anti-malaria medication that you have to take 7 days before the trip, during the trip, and then 7 days after. By the 3rd day, I was holding on to my hotel bed having my “Martin Sheen Apocalypse Now” hotel room moment were I felt like I was losing my mind.  So I threw it out and stopped taking it. So, we really had to make sure that we were properly covered.

We were also about a mile and a half from the Columbian border and Ecuador and Columbia had major border disputes because of the oil and the FARQ guerillas were very active in that area and were known to kidnap people. That concerned me. We had our hotel rooms ransacked a few times and gear stolen. Was it local Chevron people trying to dissuade us from making the film? I don’t know.  I can’t say. Was it just local thugs? There were also a lot of drug runners in the area. It was just a very scary place. We ha
d a bodyguard and we just flew beneath the radar. 

The worst thing we had, the local people are immune to them, but you’d wake up with a case of the chiggers. They’re these little bugs that burrow into your feet and lay eggs and it’s incredibly painful. I still have scars from them and if I get really stressed out or hot, they itch like crazy.

What other challenges did you face filming in the middle of the jungle?

We were so far from a city center that you have to make sure you have enough health care things in case something happens. You can’t go back from additional batteries or lighting equipment, so you have to make sure you have all that gear. It’s just good planning I suppose. I was more concerned about personal safety because we were in a very remote part of the world that was extremely lawless. You just have to watch your back.

You shot over 600 hours worth of film. Describe how you went about whittling that down to a 100 minute feature.

600 hours in Spanish. We started editing early on. After the first year, we hired an editor so it was a 2 year edit.  My editing style is different. In this MTV style of editing with computer editing and compressed budgets, I observed over the 20 years, that there is less and less time for you to edit your shows.  The MTV quick cut mentality has been very destructive. That and the compressed schedules have created a culture where filmmakers often go into a room with a preconceived idea of what they want and they grab the footage to fit that idea.

I’m an old fashion editor. I don’t allow a conversation about structure to take place until every bit of footage is reviewed. I had a very time consuming process. Every bit of footage has to be viewed and anything that is a moment that we covered in those 600 hours, which is a lot of footage, any scene that we saw in real life, has to be cut into a scene, even if you think that it is garbage, because certain themes start to emerge.  When you see this film, one of the things that it has been praised about, that I am proud of, is that it is not just an advocacy film for the lawsuit. It observes. It is a complex weave of a lot of different ideas and themes and the only way you make that kind of film is that I insist that everything is cut. There are probably about 65 scenes in the film but we probably cut about 400 - 500 scenes out of the material. They all go up on a board by theme, then we start analyzing the structure and figure out what the structure of the film is. I don’t walk into the room with a preconceived idea of structure because I think that sometimes when you cut material that you don’t think is very good, certain themes that you weren’t aware of start materializing, start becoming apparent during the editing process.

Has there been a resolution to the case or is it still ongoing?

It is still ongoing. One of the themes of the film is that all the evidence has been presented and that an independent court expert has determined that Chevron should pay 27 billion dollars in damage assessment but that is just a recommendation and the court doesn’t have to follow it. Chevron has promised a lifetime of litigation so this is something that is going to go on for another 10 or 15 years. That’s why the film is not really for the lawsuit or against the lawsuit, it’s for the people who need some relief and you can’t just rely on a lawsuit. One of the larger themes of the film is that our legal structures seem to be inadequate for dealing with these large scale humanitarian and environmental crises. If you are going to tell me that these poor people, who have zero percent fresh drinking water, who are dying of cancer at alarming rates, where there is childhood leukemia and skin rashes, there are diseases that these indigenous people didn’t have 30 or 40 years ago and it’s going to take 17 years just to get to the midway point of the trial and then another 17 years before there is a resolution. The point of the film is even though the film is about a trail, these people need help now and a lawsuit is not the structure for dealing with these large scale humanitarian and environmental crises because the defendants in this case are able to slow the wheels of justice down to a ridiculous pace.

How did you go about getting the distribution for the film?

I have a history of self distributing my documentaries. I self distributed BROTHER’S KEEPER and at the time, it broke the record for a self distributed documentary. It grossed $1.6 million dollars in 92. So I was prepared to self distribute especially given everything that is going on the marketplace. It did very well at Sundance and got good press but I wasn’t satisfied with the offers, so I set about raising a P&A fund. Then I went to Berlin. At the Berlin Film Festival, we made some TV sales to help generate the P&A funds.  On the plane ride home from Berlin, I sat next to Seymour Wishman, who runs First Run Features, and he and I had a nice chat about the film. I gave him a copy of it and he loved it. He decided to release it on DVD and theatrical but the DVD is a traditional DVD deal. For the theatrical, I still wanted control because no one cares more about the film then I do, so it is a partnership between the filmmakers and First Run Features where they are putting up some of the P&A and we’re putting up some of the P&A and we’ve retained U.S. television rights which is going to the Sundance Channel.  It’s not self distribution but it is a partnership and it’s more than a service deal, First Run is legitimately releasing it theatrically and releasing it on DVD but we augmented their P&A budget with some money that I raised from investors. I care very much about the outcome of my films and I’ve had a lot of experience distributing my own work.

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What do you hope this film accomplishes?

A couple of different things, the largest theme is that for 600 - 700 years, I think that white people have treated indigenous people terribly. It’s the great unspoken shame, I think, in this country and elsewhere. From the Spanish Conquistadors to what we have done to our own American Indians. What multinational companies do in third world countries like Ecuador, going into a region where people live. These indigenous people have lived in harmony with nature for eons.  These multinationals come in and use substandard drilling technologies, dump toxic waste into the drinking water which goes into the streams that feed the Amazon River. Whether it is legal or not, I’m not smart enough to know if they wrapped themselves up in enough legal jargon to prevail in a lawsuit but I think the moral responsibility lies at their door. What I want people to take away from this is a couple of things. One is a recognition that we have treated indigenous people terribly over the years and that multinational behavior in third world countries is just a modern day equivalent with what we did to the American Indians when we settled this country and the Spanish Conquistadors did in South America and Mexico eradicating indigenous populations. Also, to raise an awareness of living ecologically and preserving knowledge, there is the corruption of the biosphere and the destruction of the ethno sphere. We’ve disconnected indigenous people from their traditional ways and at a time when we should be celebrating and understanding indigenous people. They tread very lightly on this earth. They lived in harmony with nature. They have certain knowledge and certain traditions and we are eradicating that knowledge when we should be trying to absorb and understand it instead of eliminating or conquering it. I, also, want people to understand that our actions here, for us to have cheap and abundant gasoline, that companies do things that if people knew they wouldn’t approve of. I want people who watch this film to be more discerning consumers. We should all be aware of how all of our products are procured in the world. What companies do in our name and how products are harvested and the impact it has on other people. If that is the only thing this film communicates, I’ll be very happy.

What are your future plans?

Get some sleep. I’m going to sleep for about two weeks and then I am starting a film about Clive Barker, the horror writer. All of my films, in one way or another are about outsiders and the disenfranchised or people that don’t normally get put on the screen and I think Clive is a misunderstood outsider. He’s about to direct his first horror movie in about 14 years and this is going to be a behind the scenes look at that and an exploration of who he is and his art. I’m also doing a feature film. We’ll I am raising money for it. I would like to make a feature film. I have a script called FACING THE WIND. There is a non-fiction book by Julie Solomon and this is the screenplay version of that book. Basically, a guy kills his whole family in a psychotic breakdown and argues his own case of NOT GUILTY BY REASON OF INSANIY and gets off and starts a new family. It’s a true story and the film is about limitations of forgiveness and redemption. Should somebody like that be allowed to continue? Should he be allowed to start a new family after killing his previous family? It’s another happy family story. And I do this TV series, ICONOCLAST, I am one of the creators and director and we are entering our 5th season. That is my bread & butter and I direct television commercials.

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