Crude – the real price of oil” by Joe Berlinger is a 105 minute documentary from 2009 covering a couple of years in the monolithic court case between the Cofán people and Texaco (today Chevron). The movie is bought to you by a man who’s track record seems to be in rock-band documentaries. The Cofán are indigenous to a rainforest area of Ecuador where Texaco setup shop in the 1960’s to extract oil. According to the local’s case the oil company dumped more oil and toxic sludge in the jungle than was ever spilt by the Exxon-Valdez. There are over one thousand poisonous waste ponds in the jungle that are not sealed. The poisons are leaking into the water supply and, allegedly, causing a cancer epidemic amongst the people who call the jungle home. Thus started an epic 17 year struggle that is still underway to get compensation for the people of Ecuador. It may seem like a simple David versus Goliath struggle between evil corporation and good Indians. However Berlinger plays it pretty straight and allows both sides to tell their side of the story. Chevron had sold up and moved on when Ecuador-oil took over many years before. As part of the deal the Ecuadorian state should have picked up the tab for any further clean-up efforts.
In Houston it looked as if the Ecuadorians were going back upon their contractual obligations and the local Indians were looking to rip off a wealthy American corporation. However, as the story unfolds we are left with the impression that the poisonings date back to before the state-owned Ecuadorian company took over. One of the main lawyers for the Indians is based in New York and was making regular trips to South America to talk to his counter-part – a local born lawyer. We see the testimonies of witnesses and technical authorities before a judge in a “court room” that is actually the jungle. The court was travelling around the effected areas, taking soil and water samples as the defence and prosecuting lawyers argued their cases. Despite the balance in proceedings it is clear the film-makers have decided to follow the story from the point of view of the under-dogs. Various celebrities such as Sting and the Ecuadorian President get wheeled in and out but mostly this is the people’s tale.
What remains frustrating for the viewer is that there is no obvious “killer-case”. The way it is talked-up you expect to see vast areas of jungle devastated such as Canada has been by tar sand-oil extraction. However, the damage is more subtle and mostly invisible. Poisoning may be going on but it was hard to see whether the Indians were dying of petrochemicals or poverty-related disease. These sort of tough questions are avoided. There appears to be no “control sample” of Indians outside the effected zones to compare to. The viewer is simply asked to have sympathy for the locals because they are impoverished. They want someone to blame and Texaco is the fall guy.
This is not to say that they do not have a genuine case but the movie relies upon emotive issues. Texaco moved into the jungle as part of globalisation as they moved into the lands of many poor peoples the world over. These indigenous peoples have always suffered because, in the eyes of western corporations, they had no value & no rights. Since the economic activity was assumed to be good for the Indians then it could proceed with gay abandon. Sure, the oil companies cut corners. They are still doing this today. We only sit up and take notice if nice rich white people suffer the effects. This exposes the fundamental injustice of what has unfolded across the petroleum empire over the last fifty years. There never was going to be any happy endings.
But the problems are not unique to the oil industry. These are symptoms of a globalising machine that values profit before people and the Ecuadorian authorities were complicit in the disaster. Every country has had its local stooges, its useful idiots. The oil industry kills people to put petrol in rich people’s SUV’s. This is an issue of injustice. This movie doesn’t quite deal the killer-blow. In fact it is so boring for most of its length that you are tempted to reach for the remote and fast-forward it. It only steps up a gear with the Police soundtrack (“Message in a Bottle”) kicking in towards the end. However, this is not “The Age of Stupid”. AOS did the oil-injustice story so much better than “Crude”. Therefore it is a little saddening to see “Crude” awarded accolades from Sundance and the One World Media Awards when AOS did not. What’s the deal with that? This is a decidedly average movie about a really important topic. However it focuses on the minute detail of one problem in one corner of the earth. Other movies have done this better, ie “The Corporation”. It doesn’t join the dots between the petrol in your car’s tank and the suffering of indigenous people the world over. I am afraid most viewers will not be truly enlightened by this movie. It suggests the problem is an isolated cased rather than simply business as usual. Disappointing.