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'Crude' Looks at Oil Damage in Amazon Jungle

by Anne Schroeder Mullins

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger says he can't describe his latest movie, "Crude: The Real Price of Oil," in Hollywood terms. It's no simple "Erin Brockovich" meets "A Civil Action."

'Crude' is about oil contamination in the Amazon. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery) "Crude" - about alleged corporate oil contamination in the Amazon jungle and how it has affected those who live there - is a David and Goliath story, Berlinger says.

The action revolves around Texaco (now Chevron) and its drilling for oil in the Amazon forest for three decades.

The work allegedly caused the ground and water to become steeped in oil, which led to an increasingly sick population. Since 1993, some 30,000 of those people have taken on Chevron in a landmark lawsuit seeking damages. Seventeen years later, the lawsuit is ongoing, with no end in sight: It "will go on another 10 years," Berlinger predicts. "Chevron has promised a lifetime of litigation."  

Berlinger says his film took 3½ years to make, with more than 600 hours of film resulting from his 25 trips to the Amazon.

"I went kicking and screaming," he said of his initial reaction - and then he saw the devastation and was sold.

"I feel terrible for these people. It's a tragedy. It's very difficult to talk to people, story after story after story, [and they have] early cancer and ... rashes on babies - you go back to your hotel room and you want to give up on humanity," he says.  

Who's at fault in all this? "The [Ecuadorean] government, ... Texaco has a huge role to play. ... The system was designed to pollute. That would not have been set up in this country in an area of dense population."

It's important to note, says Berlinger, that this is not an anti-oil film. "I would be a hypocrite if I made an anti-oil film," he says. "It's an anti-corporate-irresponsibility film and a human rights film."

His ideal viewer? "Anyone who wants the fair treatment of people," he says, "and anyone with the oversight of corporate behavior."  

Though he is pessimistic about a film's power to change things, he says he's happy to bring gradual shifts in attitudes.

"If someone comes up to me and says, ‘I'm going to think twice about the kind of products I buy,' that's successful," he says. "I can go to bed at night knowing I stood up for what I think is right."

As for politics, you can guess that Berlinger's a little disenchanted. "As Michael Moore has expressed beautifully, I think the whole system has become so compromised. Even my hero, [President Barack] Obama, who I supported from the earliest days, is making decisions and pronouncements that make my head scratch and confirm my fundamental belief that he's doing the best he can in a deeply flawed system that is controlled by money."

"Crude," which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to critical accolades, opens Friday in D.C.

Oil, Oil, Everywhere

While "Crude" will hit the large screens soon, activists and environmentalists who can't get enough of the subject can witness the effects of the search for oil in yet another way. Currently at the Corcoran Gallery is a series of photos by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who traveled around the world for more than a decade capturing the places where oil is found, produced and distributed. Given the recession and the controversial nature of the exhibit, which includes 56 large-scale color landscape photographs, the Corcoran nearly missed out on being able to present it.

"When you're doing an exhibition in Washington, it's about the intersection of art and politics," said senior curator Paul Roth. "Instead of getting a foundation or an oil company, which would be controversial, we went for a company that had already been supportive of the artist."

As it turned out, Canada's Scotia Bank was willing to foot the entire bill - and threw a party to launch the exhibition along with the Canadian Embassy. "Scotia was committed to the vision and to the subject matter - and wouldn't be bothered by the political implication here," said Roth.

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