By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire June 23, 2010 at 2:12AM
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger will be back in court next month, defending himself against a move by Chevron to gain access to 600+ hours of footage he used to make "Crude: The Real Price of Oil," a documentary about the oil company that debuted at last year's Sundance Film Festival. The company is hoping to use the documentary outtakes to defend itself against the class action lawsuit depicted in the film itself.
In court next month, a growing coalition of filmmakers and media companies will resist Chevron's attempt to secure Joe Berlinger's outtakes and footage used in the making of "Crude." When Berlinger is back in front of a judge on July 14th, he'll be there with the support of leading news organizations and filmmakers aimed at protecting the privacy of journalists.
"What's at stake is the basic trust between a journalist and a source," warned Berlinger, speaking last night at a New York City fundraiser for his legal bills that included a screening of "Crude" followed by a discussion.
"It is American media versus corporate interests and defense attorneys," Berlinger said at IFC Center, previewing the battle that is brewing over the filmmaker's footage. He called the coming battle an, "amazing squaring off of the media against corporations."
"Outtakes are the same as a reporter's notes," responded WGA East President Michael Winship, on stage after the Stranger Than Fiction series screening in downtown Manhattan. Seated on the same panel, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who squared off against McDonalds in his own film, "Super Size Me," also warned of the ramifications of a judgement forcing Berlinger to hand over his footage. Spurlock said it would send filmmakers and journalists down a path that would hinder news gathering and filmmaking. "It's going to affect everyone," Spurlock said.
Collectively, the participants spoke of a 'chilling effect on journalism and filmmaking' that would result from a ruling in favor of Chevron.
ABC TV, the Associated Press, CBS TV, the Daily News, the DGA, the Dow Jones Company, the Gannell Company, the Hearst Corporation, HBO, the IDA, NBC Universal, the New York Times Company, and the Washington Post all signed onto an amicus brief penned by Floyd Abrams in support of Berlinger's cause. And a community of filmmakers at the International Documentary Association published an open letter of support of Berlinger, saying:
"Though many of us work independently of large news organizations, we nevertheless hold ourselves to the highest of journalistic standards in the writing, producing, and editing of our films. In fact, as traditional news media finds itself taking fewer chances due to advertiser fears and corporate ownership, the urgency of bold, groundbreaking journalism through the documentary medium is perhaps greater than ever."
Earlier this month, Berlinger was granted a stay in the wake of an appeal of last month's verdict that he hand over the hundreds of hours of footage to Chevron, which is facing a local trial that could result it in paying billions of dollars in damages.
"Crude," a favorite at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and an award-winning environmental documentary, charts the evolution of the lawsuit filed against Chevron by tens of thousands of Ecuadorians for the alleged contamination of the Amazon rainforest in the country, depicting numerous cases of sickness and cancer said to be linked to oil drilling in the region.
The film, which was released in U.S. movie theaters last year and is now available on DVD, paints a profoundly negative picture of Chevron as the corporation battles a seventeen year class action lawsuit stemming from the oil contamination in Ecuador by Texaco, which it acquired nearly a decade ago.
Berlinger's film about the human and ecological impact of massive oil pollution in Ecuador, is back in the spotlight at the same time that another oil corporation, BP, is facing billions of dollars in claims in the wake of the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Chevron makes BP look like a model corporate citizen," said a lawyer for the plaintiffs fighting Chevron in Ecuador, calling the South American situation a great ecological disaster that exceeds the current BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last night, Berlinger said that if his footage were handed over, he feared that Chevron would manipulate the documentary footage to create a misleading portrait of the situation in Ecuador.
No limits were placed on the footage that could be used by Chevron, Berlinger said, reacting to the initial court order. He also noted that many of his outtakes include readily available images.
"Half my footage is available from a lot of other sources," Berlinger said, noting that the oil company had cameras present much of the time he was shooting at public events in the South American country.
In a recent interview with KCRW, Berlinger explained that he was fighting the case to protect documentary filmmakers as journalists.
Using a first amendment argument, Berlinger said that his film outtakes are his own. As Berlinger explained in the interview, Chevron claimed that Berlinger edited out or purposefully did not include footage that would support Chevron's defense against the Ecuadorians. Chevron believes the footage shows misconduct or fraud on the part of the Ecuadorians' legal team.
Last night, Berlinger seemed to distinguish himself from the efforts of the plaintiffs depicted in his own film, warning that he is not aligned with them and did not make his film at their direction. He added that much of the footage gathered for his film was shot on the record.
"People who wanted a story allowed me access," Berlinger said of plaintiffs who are fighting Chevron in Ecuador and their legal team. I just want to make it clear...they were the objects of my movie and they gave me access and now that access is being turned on its head."
[Bryce Renninger contributed to this article.]