Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Send lawyers, guns and money, black gold has hit the fan

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Joe Berlinger
Produced by R. Deleon, Richard Stratton, Michael Bonfiglio & Berlinger
Released by First Run Features
USA. 104 min. Not Rated
In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Directed by Sandy Cioffi
Written by Leslye Wood, Jill Freidberg & Cioffi
Produced by Kate Wolf, Tammi Sims, Wood & Cioffi
Released by Virasana Productions and Vérité Coffee
USA. 94 min. Not Rated
In English and Ijaw with English subtitles

For over 400 years, large companies have aggressively extracted natural resources around the world for huge profits while damaging the environment and running roughshod over the indigenous population. But until now the mismatched struggles weren't witnessed by dedicated documentary filmmakers.

Joe Berlinger's Crude, in Ecuador, and Sandy Cioffi's Sweet Crude, in Nigeria, are each the results of three years of dogged determination in challenging filming conditions of climate and danger to expose the human and environmental cost of our voracious demand for oil into the 21st century. Both focus on the decades-long bullying business of Chevron, one of the largest corporations in the world. But while the toxic air and water pollution, severe health problems, decimated food supply, and lack of economic benefits are depressingly the same in South America and Africa, along with government complicity, the filmmakers strikingly capture the contrasting tactics the two communities have taken to fight the power, the legal system in Ecuador vs. political revolt in Nigeria. Both films make complex issues comprehensible in a depth not achieved in most journalism, helped by behind-the-scenes access from heroic activists eager to bring their stories to a wider international audience. Sweet Crude goes beyond the adversarial set-up of villagers vs. villains to more effectively make the case that outsiders' misperception of the conflict fuels the problems.

In Ecuador, the plight of the people of the Amazon has already attracted Western support, when a Philadelphia law firm in 1993 took on one of the largest class action suits in the world. As the original target Texaco merged into Chevron in 2001, the company successfully moved the case from U.S. courts back to Ecuador.

Out of sight is not out of mind, and the film well shows how a canny public relations campaign is a key part of their legal strategy to even up the odds in the court of world opinion. The public face is the local hero Pablo Fajardo, who director Joe Berlinger follows from his being awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco to the very long trip back home in the Amazon, where he had sought church scholarships to college and law school just so he could bring his first case on behalf of his community. But also key is persistent New York legal consultant Steven Donziger [who would later become controversially central to the oil company’s law suits against the film director]. He leads Berlinger to document the court's evidentiary phase of trudging to the sites where the plaintiffs claim pollution and the defendant claims amelioration, with flamboyant lawyers shouting nose to nose in the jungle across from the judge. The New Yorker also organizes colorful protests by locals brought in native dress to a Chevron shareholder meeting in Houston and attracts Vanity Fair coverage. That article brings the attention of international organizations, particularly Trudie Styler who founded The Rainforest Foundation with her husband Sting (and, yes, he and the Police sing "Message in a Bottle" when the modest Fajardo is brought to the Live Earth concert at Giants Stadium). But for all the cynicism implicit in an inside look at celebrity eco chic, Styler is seen earnestly meeting with sick children at the remote polluted sites and she spurs cooperation with UNICEF for temporary supplies of clean water for the victims.

Berlinger attempts fairness by including two Chevron spokespersons. But a talking head scientist calmly explaining the difference between the incidence of cancer and the rate attributable to other possible factors doesn't have the visceral impact of a mother crying over her dying child, whatever the cause, anywhere in the world. Let alone that a closing scrawl over the other spokesperson cites his indictment on fraud (another court case Chevron is fighting). Unlike Berlinger's other, more thought-provoking cinéma vérité pursuit of controversial court cases, such as in his Paradise Lost series, he does not get below the surface or see any revelations beyond the sad recognition that any legal victory for damages and compensation may be pyrrhic when even the Exxon Valdez case has dragged on for over 20 years with reduced monetary recompense.

Sweet Crude, seen at the 2009 DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase of the International Documentary Association, reveals the grassroots efforts to claim resource control in Nigeria, a country that within a few years will be supplying the U.S. with a quarter of its oil. It is an extraordinary documentation of how a community is gradually and very reluctantly pushed into violent action in order to be heard. It well goes beyond the adversarial set-up of villagers vs. villains to more effectively make the case that outsiders' misperception of the conflict fuels the problems. .

Director Sandy Cioffi narrates that she was initially commissioned to film the opening of an internationally sponsored Friendship Library in a Niger Delta village. But the locals viewed it more for a meeting place to help them continue their long struggle against Chevron. Commentary from American and African academics and journalists, supplemented by well-drawn time line and map, provide useful context to the testimony by elders and mothers about their many nonviolent protests over the years, supported by local archival coverage that recalls the more successful efforts in Liberia's Pray The Devil Back To Hell. Each time they backed off in exchange for formal promises of amelioration and input. But each time no change resulted, except violent reprisals from government security forces protecting the pipelines more than the people. (Renowned local leader Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995 for leading a peaceful campaign against the oil companies.).

Over the course of filming, student leaders articulately discuss their political hopes, mature to organize the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and then express frustration when they see no choices left but to sabotage Chevron's equipment and kidnap foreign oil workers. But even their released captives plead with the press that their motives are to get across their point of view about the impact of big oil on the region.

In one of the most illuminating segments, Cioffi arranges a network interview with an authentic MEND spokesman, but the TV reporter cuts him off for not fitting his pre-conceived notion of the bombastic self-proclaimed Islamic terrorist, disavowed by MEND, who had been sending anonymous threats to the international press. As criminals also jump into the chaotic brew of poverty and ferment, Cioffi strongly makes the case that there is still an opportunity for a peaceful solution to the economic and environmental crisis, but only if the international community intervenes now. Ironically, her final footage of responses by Chevron and government spokesmen was confiscated when she and her team were held in military prison for seven days. [Rachel Boynton was able to follow up with all sides in her 2013 Brad Pitt-produced documentary in Big Men.]

With no way for the tiger in our tanks to be stamped with any kind of conflict-free certification, both documentaries soberly warn that the price of oil goes beyond dollar per gallon.

September 10, 2009

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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