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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


Chevron Goes After Documentary Filmmaker

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, film, documentary, free speech, media, lawsuit, Crude, New York Times, First Run Features,

Filmmaker Joe BerlingerMany documentary filmmakers are at their core journalists, and some of the feistier ones ferret out information and images that bring to light villainy, greed, cruelty, and corruption. So it’s disconcerting to see a documentary director being threatened with jail time if he doesn’t turn over his outtakes.

That’s what’s happening to Joe Berlinger, director of the film Crude, which tells the story of a lawsuit brought by indigenous Amazon people against the oil giant Chevron for environmental damages to the rainforest. (See a review of Crude in Utne Reader.) Chevron has subpoenaed Berlinger and the nearly 600 hours of raw footage shot for the film.

Berlinger’s attorneys have argued that the footage is shielded by the journalist privilege, which protects reporters from being forced to reveal confidential sources or information, and that forcing the filmmaker to hand it over is a violation of his First Amendment rights. The filmmaker has been granted a temporary stay until June 8, when an appeals court will hear his motion for a stay on the order to turn over his film.

Berlinger has attracted some influential allies to his cause. First, the industry group the International Documentary Association and a group of filmmakers that includes 20 Academy Award winners and many more nominees issued an open letter supporting Berlinger, reported the New York Times on its Arts Beat blog. Then, this week, a group of 13 heavy-hitting media companies—including NBC Universal, HBO, and the New York Times Company—filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

He’s also been defended by that feistiest of fellow whistle-blowers, Michael Moore, who told the New York Times that the decision could have “a chilling effect”:

“If something like this is upheld, the next whistle-blower at the next corporation is going to think twice about showing me some documents if that information has to be turned over to the corporation that they’re working for,” Mr. Moore said. “Obviously the ramifications of this go far beyond documentary films, if corporations are allowed to pry into a reporter’s notebook or into a television station’s newsroom.”

The head of the company distributing Crude issued a similar warning a statement. Seymour Wishman, president of First Run Features, cited “the high risk that other journalists in the future will be deterred from embarking on similar hard hitting investigations. In order to be informed, persuaded or disabused of misperceptions, the American public desperately needs the benefit of uninhibited documentaries like Crude, and journalists like Joe Berlinger.”

If you agree—that is, if you’ve ever seen a documentary that changed your mind about an issue—consider donating to the legal fund for Berlinger’s case at Kickstarter.

Sources: Arts Beat, New York Times, First Run Features, Kickstarter

Image by Ali Pflaum, courtesy of Radical Media.