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Crude

Not rated, 105 min. Directed by Joe Berlinger.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 9, 2009

Crude Professional documentarian Berlinger (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost) fashions a compelling story from a daunting thicket of material that surrounds the epic environmental lawsuit filed in U.S. courts by 30,000 Ecuadorans against the oil company Texaco. In 2001, Texaco merged with Chevron, and therefore inherited the conflict. At this point in 2009, the class-action suit has been in play for more than 15 years, with at least another 10 years of disputation more than likely. At stake is the health of the Ecuadorean Amazon and the indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on the river for sustenance. Texaco (now Chevron) came to Ecuador in the late 1960s to drill for oil, and by the time the company left in the early 1990s, it is said the company left behind poisonous oil slicks that have done at least 30 times more damage than the Exxon Valdez disaster and pumped toxic contamination into the rivers and rain forest, which has created massive cancer clusters throughout the region. Berlinger manages to corral various strands of information that spread over a couple of continents and even more languages and shape a strong narrative thread that keeps the story from getting bogged down in either legalese or overwhelmingly populist sentiment. Along the way, the film highlights the entrenched pattern of corporate America's bulldozing of indigenous interests at home and abroad and something of a colonialist tradition of Manifest Destiny. At the heart of the story is American Steven Donziger, the class-action suit's lead attorney, who provides ongoing background for much of what we see. However, also intrinsic to the tale is Ecuadoran attorney Pablo Fajardo, whose life story and personal growth are part of what we witness. Some Chevron spokespeople are additionally included among the voices heard in Crude, as is ubiquitous philanthropist Trudie Styler, who, along with her husband, Sting, takes up the Ecuadorans' cause. Crude's moving testimony and careful documentation make it hard to turn away from this issue. It will certainly remain in your mind the next time you stop for gas. (For an interview with director Joe Berlinger, see "Ecuador v. Big Oil," April 17.)
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