It's the familiar David Vs Goliath story – one we've seen played out in our media on many an occasion. And being the bleeding-heart Marxist that I am, it should be no surprise that I'm almost always going to side with the "David."
However, aware of all that, I trudge on, along… As the saying goes, there are two sides to every story; or is it that there are 2 sides to every story, and then there's the truth?
We get mostly one side here, so it's obvious where the filmmaker's loyalties lie. That's not a problem, I suppose. His cause is indeed one worth fighting for, if the history of the exploits by American companies in "third world" nations is anything to go by – specifically "third world" nations with valuable resources; in the case of Crude, we're talking about black gold, AKA oil.
The case is laid out quite simply; we know who the "good guys" are, and the "villains" are also obvious. On the surface, given the specifics, it would appear to be a proverbial slam-dunk, an open and shut case: Chevron/Texaco, the American oil company, and resident villain, spent almost 30 years (from the early 60s through the early 90s) in Ecuador, the small Spanish-speaking country in Northwestern South America, home to the Amazon rainforest – the largest in the world – pillaging the land of its energy resources, while simultaneously dumping toxic waste in various local bodies of water, which, naturally, had innumerable repercussions on the land, its food and water supply, and in the end, the people who inhabit the land (many were living with, or had died from various forms of cancer). And thus, in 1993, the Ecuadorean people filed a class-action lawsuit against Chevron/Texaco, seeking monetary damages as compensation.
And, unfortunately, over a decade later, litigation continues… at least as of the time of this film's production.
Obviously, Chevron/Texaco refused to accept any responsibility whatsoever, choosing to put the blame on a local oil-drilling company Petro-Ecuador, which took over after Chevron/Texaco was essentially forced out (the country eventually realized – as many others have done in other parts of the world, notably in Africa – that it would rather have control of its own resources).
But, an open and shut case it clearly is not, as Chevron, in its Goliath stance, over the years, has been able to influence various aspects of the match much to the detriment of their opponents. It feels like it's all a game to them – an expensive game – and they are dead-set on winning, by any means necessary!
Chevron is a company with 67,000 employees, and made $273 Billion in revenue in 2008 – more than the GDP of many small countries. In fact, it's more than the GDP of the entire country of Ecuador! So, clearly, this David Vs Goliath story is an obvious mismatch, right? Well… to a certain degree yes.
There's no happy ending here. David doesn't get to bring Goliath down with the stone in his sling, and cut off Goliath's head. Despite the relentless efforts of the American law firm representing the citizens of Ecuador (hoping for a big payday themselves, I should add, which one has to question), they simply can't match Chevron's monetary will and power – a position that Chevron is fully aware of, and fully exploits, using every tool in their arsenal to ensure that the case drags on for as long as possible, until the other side runs out of money and/or just gives up.
And so the case drags on… and on… and on…! Undoubtedly, millions of dollars spent in litigation on both sides, as men, women and children continue to get sick and die in the country at the center of the battle.
To be sure, the stakes are high for Chevron, with experts estimating that the company could be liable for damages of up to US$27 billion – a figure that would be significantly higher than the record $5 billion, later reduced to $500 million, that ExxonMobil was ordered to pay after an oil spill in Alaska.
Also, I'm sure Chevron recognizes the potential subsequent ramifications if they were to indeed accept blame; by doing so, it opens the litigation floodgates, as I doubt that there's ever been an instance in which an oil company in a similar situation has willfully claimed fault. They may have paid out a settlement to the plaintiffs, but I doubt if any of them have ever admitted fault.
It's standard work here; expect gut-wrenching moments meant to tug at heart strings (although, thankfully, not done gratuitously), intimate portraits of several Ecuadorans – those actively fighting Goliath, and those who've suffered considerable, and in some cases irreplaceable loss, as a result of Chevron's greed and apathy (character traits that the filmmaker never fails to emphasize for effect, when opportunities to do so present themselves). They may as well have had horns on their heads… or maybe fangs and cloaks.
However, obviously, this isn't a film made for employees of, or investors in Chevron. I'd say, most viewers paying to see this have likely already chosen a side – the side of David. Pro-Chevron types probably won't be forced to question their stance after seeing this. But that's ok, because I don't believe that's the filmmaker's intent. Dissemination of information on a case that many may not know about, is the idea here; and maybe, even further, a call to action, if only to help drum up further support from people like myself, or just an awareness.
There's no Michael Moore-esque character to entertain us, marching into Chevron's headquarters to confront the company's brass. There are no theatrics. There's actually a little comedy.
The camera documents – albeit, a mostly one-sided documentation – and what is recorded is mostly compelling viewing.
In watching this, I felt conflicted. There I am, seating in a relatively comfortable apartment, far away from the kinds of injustices at work in a country like Ecuador, and I watch, and I feel some degree of empathy for the victims; yet, I also hope that we all realize that companies like Chevron exist because we practically demand that they do. They provide this country with a resource that, at this moment in time, is arguably essential to how we choose to live (the key words here being "choose to").
The fruit of Chevron's labor, which as the doc shows, has killed indigenous people in countries like Ecuador, is so pervasive, and so deeply rooted in our lives, that we have almost no choice but to be complicit in the damage the company has caused, and that companies like them continue to cause the world over.
Chevron is also a publicly traded company on the New York Stork Exchange, currently trading at about $117 per share. The investors in the company, yes, even the small individual investor like myself (although I don't own any stock in Chevron), demand that the company (and others like it) produce a profit quarter after quarter, year after year, by doing everything in its power to keep its expenditures as low as possible; paying out a multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuit certainly isn't ideal.
So, here we are… two-faced in a kind of way… cheering on David, but also simultaneously feeding and supporting Goliath.
So, we walk out of the theatre feeling what exactly? Satisfaction for having exposed ourselves to what is essentially a crime against humanity, as our fellow men, women and children are being sacrificed, just so we can have access to that precious commodity known as oil, and all the products it's an ingredient of.
The United States alone accounts for roughly 25% of the entire world's total oil consumption, more than any other country on the planet. We demand it. We can't live without it. So, aren't companies like Chevron, Exxon and others simply doing our bidding?
That's a question I walked away with after screening the film.
Joe Berlinger's acclaimed documentary Crude is available on Netflix, streaming.