The absorbing and heartbreaking new documentary, Crude
, about the long - and still unresolved - effort to bring Chevron-Texaco to trial for environmental crimes, begins with a map of Ecuador. A black drop appears on the landscape, and slowly spreads, ultimately engulfing the country - like a shirt stained with blood after a bullet penetrates the flesh.
Next we see an Ecuadorean woman, decrying the ruination of her land at the hands of a transnational corporation - Texaco - who came to take oil from the ground, leaving destruction, disease, grief.
Texaco - now Chevron - disagrees. They claim they did clean up their mess before handing over the whole horrific business to PetroEcuador in the early 90s; they claim, in fact, the government of Ecuador signed off, absolving them of any further responsibility.
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
, Brother's Keeper
) bounces his camera back and forth, from the PR folks and Chevron scientists who defend the giant corporation, to the villagers who suffer from skin rashes, disease and early death.
Sure, Berlinger's got his sympathies. Who do you think would win a contest for the hearts of viewers when you juxtapose a grieving, weeping mother with a dispassionate scientist representing big business?
If there is a main protagonist in Crude
it is Pablo Fajardo, who worked in the Ecuadorean rainforest oil fields as a youngster and saw the black smoke, the oil spills, the crude oil spread over the roads. He grew up watching Texaco dump what ended up being a billion gallons of poisonous, toxic liquid.
Fajardo eventually becomes a lawyer to fight big oil, and ends up a celebrity - from being featured in a 2007 profile spread in Vanity Fair
to hanging out with Trudie Styler, Sting and The Police at a benefit concert.
Early on in Crude
, Fajardo tells a handful of the 30,000 villagers involved in the class action lawsuit: "You who have lived this story can tell us better than anyone" what life was like before the white man and black crude arrived. And so they do, painting a bucolic picture of humans in harmony with nature - clean fauna, a pristine jungle, life reigning in a paradise.
Now they are embroiled in a devastated landscape, and ensnarled in an endless lawsuit. Begun in 1993, the lawsuit would confuse Kafka, as obstruction after obstruction has been put in place by the big oil company. Fajardo is not intimidated, though. He feels confident, he says, that he can fight the Chevron lawyers because "they have to think so much harder to lie," to find arguments to counter his truths.
Fajardo emerges as a clarifying voice of elegance and grace in the middle of all this crude. As Berlinger drills down, so to speak, to the micro-scape of this devastation, it is Fajardo who extrapolates out into the larger landscape.
Texaco used the cheapest method of dealing with their waste, Fajardo points out, in order to maximize their profit. They dug a thousand pits to dump their oil and other toxins, and those toxins poured into the streams that feed into the rivers that enter the Atlantic Ocean ... and thus the world.
Fajardo himself follows a similar path, from a villager in the Ecuadorean rainforest to a lawyer battling big business in San Francisco, USA.
But it isn't until Ecuador's newly elected president, Rafael Correa, a self-proclaimed "humanist, leftist Christian" hears of the rainforest travesty and visits the oil pits, that Fajardo and company finally find some traction. From there it's on to Vanity Fair
and Sting's wife Trudie and now, a documentary for you to watch.
Still, the futility of it all sits like a stone in your heart. Berlinger is clear that the litigation could take another ten years. Ten years, countless tears, tumors, trouble.... And as the film poses at the end, how do you compensate these people for something they can never recover? Their culture and land, lost, buried in the black crude.
An exclusive screening of 'Crude' will be held Thursday, 7 p.m. at Earth House Collective, 237. N. East St. For more, see our Go & Do Section.