Chevron Goes After Documentary Filmmaker

| 6/4/2010 4:55:38 PM

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.”

6/8/2010 11:48:21 AM

Viewing "Crude" and a following Q&A session with Joe Berlinger, it’s very difficult to discount the credibility of the material he presents. In light of current events (4/10), perhaps the saddest thing to consider is the barely reported but irreparable damage done to both the indigenous people and the rainforest itself in comparison to the high profile oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While both events are inexcusable, Chevron's actions in Ecuador should probably be considered as the most reprehensible as the damage results from long term and presumably calculated mismanagement whereas the BP spill could generously be described as an accident. BP, ostensibly at least, has undertaken to be responsible for the "mess" they have made while Chevron chooses to attack Berlinger for exposing the damage that has been done to the Amazon forest and some of its inhabitants. But I forget - they are just uncivilized forest dwellers and there are lots of trees in the Amazon jungle! If Chevron wins this case it will be a sad reflection on the values of the “civilized” world.

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