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Court Orders Documentary Filmmaker to Hand Ecuador Footage to Chevron

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Last week a federal court in Manhattan ordered a documentary filmmaker to hand over to Chevron hundreds of hours of footage. Joseph Berlinger’s award-winning film, Crude: The Real Price of Oil, chronicles the struggle of indigenous Ecuadorians against ChevronTexaco’s oil contamination of their land. It focuses on the seventeen-year legal battle between Chevron and 30,000 Ecuadorians who say their land, rivers, wells, livestock and bodies were poisoned by decades of reckless oil drilling in the rainforest. Chevron has sought Berlinger’s outtakes to help defend itself against an Ecuadorian lawsuit seeking $27 billion in environmental damages. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the latest twist in the multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against the oil giant Chevron. Last week a federal court in Manhattan ordered a documentary filmmaker to hand over to Chevron hundreds of hours of footage. Joseph Berlinger’s award-winning film, Crude: The Real Price of Oil, chronicles the struggle of indigenous Ecuadorians against ChevronTexaco’s oil contamination of their land. It focuses on the seventeen-year legal battle between Chevron and 30,000 Ecuadorians who say their land, rivers, wells, livestock and bodies were poisoned by decades of reckless oil drilling in the rainforest. Chevron has sought Berlinger’s outtakes to help defend itself against an Ecuadorian lawsuit seeking $27 billion in environmental damages.

On Thursday, Judge Lewis Kaplan of the district court in Manhattan ruled in favor of Chevron’s request to view the 600 hours of outtakes from Crude. The decision has raised concerns over both the outcome of the Ecuadorian lawsuit as well as the future of protections and privileges granted to journalists.

Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson welcomed the ruling and told the press that Berlinger might have unwittingly captured misconduct by the court in Ecuador and the plaintiff’s legal team. He added, quote, “Given the level of opposition to Chevron gaining access to the outtakes, we have to believe there is…damning content that was left on the cutting room floor. It’s in the interest of justice that these events are known more broadly.” But the director and producer of Crude, Joe Berlinger, says there is no smoking gun and has vowed to appeal the ruling.

I’m joined now by Joe Berlinger.

Joe, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain your response to this decision against you.

JOE BERLINGER: Hey there, Amy. How are you? It’s actually Berlinger, just so you know.

You know, the idea that there must be some smoking gun as why we’re opposing it is just a complete disregard for any belief in the First Amendment. You know, I am a journalist. I am covered by a journalist privilege, we hope. And there’s a certain — and unfortunately federal law does allow for the piercing of journalist privilege, but only when you show relevance and, you know, specific footage. This is a broad request to turn over my entire files. It’d be like inviting someone to rummage through your underwear drawer to find something incriminating. You know, we are shocked by the judge’s decision, at the broadness of the request. You know, anything that’s in the film, you know, there’s tremendous — I believe Crude shows both sides of the situation, and there’s a lot in the film that they could have used to go on a more narrow request, but they’ve not done that. They’ve simply asked for the entire footage to be turned over to go on a fishing expedition.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to some of the clips of your film, this excerpt featuring the two Chevron fighting lawyers you profile, American attorney Steven Danziger and Ecuadorian lawyer Pablo Fajardo.

    PABLO FAJARDO: [translated] When I began working on this case, I didn’t have any professional experience litigating cases. I have never felt inferior to any of the Texaco lawyers, because when I say something, they have to think a thousand times to come up with a lie in order to counter my truth. They have to think much harder than me. I know I always tell the truth, and if I have to die for it, then I will, with pleasure.

    STEVEN DANZIGER: This is about fighting hundreds of years of history, you know, in Latin America, and it’s about fighting one of the most powerful companies in the world, with people who have literally no resources and are some of the most marginalized people on earth. So, you know, it’s a completely unequal battle. The fact we’re in the game is a huge victory. You know, the fact we’re having a trial is a miracle. It’s historic. This is becoming, like we always envisioned, a true national issue. It’s about a nation that got completely screwed over by an American company and about a continent, to take it out a little further, that has really never been treated with a whole lot of respect by American corporate power. And it’s always been seen — from United Fruit in Guatemala and the CIA doing a coup there in 1954, you know, to Nicaragua with Somoza supported by the Marines, you know, for several decades, it’s always been a place that’s been seen sort of as the backyard of the United States. And like, it’s changing now, you know, and we’re riding that wave of change.

    PABLO FAJARDO: [translated] We don’t defend Petroecuador. They’ve done plenty of bad things. We hope to have another trial against Petroecuador so that they are held accountable for their actions. What we have to do is — each one is responsible for themselves. Texaco did terrible things. Texaco has to answer for itself. Petroecuador does things they have to answer. What they want is to say everything is Petro’s fault, so that they are free from responsibility. We will not allow that.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpts from the film Crude, ending on the Ecuadorian attorney Pablo Fajardo responding to Chevron’s attempts to blame Petroecuador for the pollution. Explain this further.

JOE BERLINGER: Well, you know, this is a long case that’s been going on for seventeen years. Basically, Texaco is accused, from the late ’60s to the early ’90s, when they left the country, of, you know, massive environmental damage. The lawsuit was filed in ’93 in a New York court. After nine years of struggling in the US, the case was finally thrown out and remanded to Ecuador. So the case was refiled and finally got on its feet in 2003, 2004, around the time I started my film. One of the things the plaintiffs allege is that the system of oil production that was created by Texaco was then turned over to Petroecuador, and so any damage that Petroecuador has done is also — is also Texaco’s fault. In the meantime, Texaco and Chevron merged, and so Chevron now has inherited this lawsuit. But because it’s taken so long for the lawsuit to get off the ground, it’s easy for Chevron to now point the finger at Petroecuador and say all the pollution is Petroecuador’s, but in fact, according to the plaintiffs, this lawsuit was filed back in ’93.

AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip from the film Crude. Here, a resident of San Carlos, Ecuador, Maria Garofalo, describes how the contamination in the water has impacted her family’s ability to survive.

    MARIA GAROFALO: [translated] The water is contaminated. The air is contaminated. That’s why I can’t have my daughter here together with the family. For me, it’s quite sad. First, I had the problem, and now my daughter, who’s so young to have a disease such as cancer. We are people who don’t have the means to pay for our daughter’s treatment. My daughter is eighteen years old. For each treatment that I have and each treatment my daughter has, I need $500. Where am I going to get $500 every fifteen to twenty days for every appointment she has?

    I bought chickens to raise in hopes of making some money to pay for my daughter’s treatment. Now we don’t have anything because everything has just died. All the animals are dying from contamination because they run to the stream and drink the water. The animals drink that water and die, and there is nothing you can do about it. That’s why we say there is no life here for the animals, and it’s even worse for us humans.

    SARA McMILLEN: Chevron takes those kinds of allegations very seriously, so that was one of my mandates, was to investigate the health allegations. So we’ve hired external epidemiologists, as well as our internal epidemiologists, health risk assessors, to look at all of the data to investigate this. And what we found is that there’s absolutely no evidence that there’s an increase in cancer death rate.

AMY GOODMAN: That excerpt from the film Crude, ending with Chevron chief environmental scientist Sara McMillen. Your response to that, Joe Berlinger?

JOE BERLINGER: Well, you know, I mean, the style of the film is to show both sides, and the film is actually rather neutral with regard to the lawsuit. Obviously, I am extremely sympathetic to the plight of the indigenous people there. The people in that region have suffered tremendous environmental damage and tremendous health effects. And this lawsuit has been characterized by an extremely lengthy process. Chevron has flooded the court with paper. They are the ones who wanted to try this thing in Ecuador to get it out of the US court system, and at the time they testified as to the fairness and efficiency of the Ecuadorian court system. Now that it’s not going their way, they are claiming that the process is unfair, not transparent and has become politicized. I mean, this is a football that has been tossed back and forth for, you know, two generations, and there’s no end in sight. And I think one of the themes of the film, actually, is that, you know, the inadequacy of the lawsuit mechanism to address these kinds of large-scale environmental and humanitarian crises. You know, by the time this thing gets resolved, three generations of people will be suffering the ill effects of oil production. And there’s got to be, you know, just like they’re trying to, you know, clean up the Gulf, and just like when, in Haiti, people have done everything possible to try to bring some relief, you know, we shouldn’t just rely on a lawsuit to assume that these things will get cleaned up. There is misery down there that needs to be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Maass, can you put what happened with Chevron and Joe Berlinger and his film Crude into the broader context of the power of the oil companies? Did this ruling surprise you, that this filmmaker has to hand over all of his outtakes to Chevron?

PETER MAASS: The ruling surprised me, as I think it surprised most journalists, because one attempts to keep the shield law in place in terms of protections of journalists, and, you know, this is something that is kind of a constant problem, as well. A reporter for the New York Times was sued, or I should say the courts came at him a couple weeks ago, James Risen, to get him to reveal sources involved with some of his reporting. So this is a constant problem that happens, and it happens to have struck Joe Berlinger, a documentarian, in this case. And hopefully it will come out on his side. I expect so.

But, you know, overall, the thing that I kind of am focusing on, in a sense, is more globally in the sense of these oil companies and the problem of oil. It’s not just the problems of the past, which need to be atoned for, in terms of what happened in Ecuador while Texaco was there, but you have the same kind of problems happening now, not just in Ecuador, but in other countries. And it’s not just BP, it’s not just Exxon, that is involved in oil pollution. There are also state-owned companies, and it’s happening drip by drip every day in almost every country where oil is extracted. So if we just focus on what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico — and we need to focus on that — that’s not enough. We need to also focus on the fact that there is oil pollution happening all over the globe, in some countries worse than others. And if we just, every thirty years, when it happens to wash up on our shores, pay attention, then we’re never going to kind of come to the point that we need to come at, which is understanding that we have to get off of oil, because it is really damaging the environment and the countries and the cultures that provide it to us.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Maass, finally, we only have thirty seconds, but you write a good deal about Saudi Arabia and oil there. Could you summarize?

PETER MAASS: Well, thirty seconds is not a lot to summarize anything about Saudi Arabia, but certainly one of the key problems with Saudi Arabia is in terms of the amounts of money that have gone into that country that have been used, as a result, for purposes, political purposes, that have not terribly worked out well for the rest of the world, in terms of funding of violent jihadi forces.

But also, there’s another issue, which is kind of unrelated to that, which is very troubling in Saudi Arabia, which is how much oil does Saudi Arabia really have? I mean, there’s this whole kind of issue of peak oil. Are we there yet? Are we beyond peak oil? And Saudi Arabia, as a dictatorial country, does not disclose how much oil it has, so there’s a big question over really kind of like, well, how much more in the way of supplies are there. And the people who have it, in the case of Saudi Arabia, about a quarter of the world’s reserves, aren’t letting anybody else know. So there’s kind of two very serious unrelated problems that come together in Saudi Arabia.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Peter Maass, award-winning investigative journalist and author. His latest book is called Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. And Joe Berlinger, award-winning filmmaker, journalist, photographer, director of Crude: The Real Price of Oil.

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