Chevron in Ecuador

The archive of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign website

Filmmaker Battling Chevron Over Ecuador Footage Receives Groundswell of Support

Bill Moyers, Trudie Styler, Michael Moore, Ric Burns Warn of "Chilling Effect" on Journalists and Whistleblowers
Growing Public Relations Problem for Chevron; Hearing Today on Stay Request

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New York, NY – Chevron's attempt to use a U.S. federal court to gain access to more than 600 hours of private video outtakes of its Ecuador environmental disaster from the celebrated filmmaker Joe Berlinger has run into a groundswell of criticism as the issue heads up to an appellate court for judicial review.

A hearing to stay Chevron's subpoena so the appeals court can consider the issue will take place today (May 19) at 2 p.m. before Judge Lewis Kaplan at 500 Pearl St. in Manhattan.

On Monday, the Ecuadorian plaintiffs suing Chevron for deliberately dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon rainforest appealed a decision by Judge Kaplan ordering Berlinger to turn over his entire body of his footage to Chevron. Berlinger shot the footage over a three-year period for a documentary on the lawsuit, Crude, that has garnered several awards and was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2009.

Lawyers for Berlinger, who has vowed to fight Chevron, filed their notice of appeal last week. Berlinger is backed by the International Documentary Association, a group of filmmakers that includes 20 Academy Award winners, which issued a letter of support last week.

"Let us be clear about the important issue at stake: Chevron is trying to steamroll the First Amendment rights of a noted filmmaker as part of a campaign to evade accountability for an environmental disaster that has devastated the lives of thousands of people in the Ecuadorian Amazon," said Ilann Maazel, a lawyer who represents indigenous groups suing the oil giant.

Judge Kaplan's decision is being seen as an attack on the ability of filmmakers and journalists to cultivate sources and play their traditional watchdog role to ferret out corporate and governmental abuse. In interviews, filmmakers Michael Moore (FAHRENHEIT 9/11, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, ROGER & ME) and Ric Burns (ANDY WARHOL, NEW YORK) condemned the court's ruling.

"It makes me shudder to think that all that stuff would be turned over...not because of any secrets that are revealed, but because of the killer blow to the trust a filmmaker cultivated, deeply, over a very long period of time," Burns said in an interview.

Also among those speaking out against the oil giant:

  • Journalist Bill Moyers, writing on The Huffington Post, said Chevron's actions were putting in jeopardy "the whole integrity of the process of journalism..." He also said the case offers a clear argument for a federal shield law to protect journalists. His article can be viewed here.
  • Trudie Styler, a film producer who co-founded the Rainforest Foundation with husband Sting, told Katie Couric of CBS News that Chevron's move is "unheard of" and added that the oil giant had created a "hell" for the people of Ecuador. Her interview can be seen here.
  • Moore, quoted in The New York Times, said of the Kaplan decision: "The chilling effect of this is ... the next whistleblower at the next corporation is going to think twice about showing me some documents if that information has to be turned over to the corporation that they're working for."
  • Burns labeled Judge Kaplan's decision "insane" and said it could deliver a "killer blow" to how documentary filmmakers work.

Berlinger's footage chronicles the Ecuador trial phase of the 17-year legal battle between indigenous tribes and the oil giant over massive oil contamination in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest. The case, Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco, is considered the largest environmental action in the world, with damages estimated at up to $27.3 billion.

The case was moved from U.S. federal court to Ecuador at Chevron's request in 2002. To induce the dismissal, Chevron at the time claimed that Ecuador's courts were fair and that it would pay any adverse judgment. But now that the scientific evidence at trial proves Chevron is guilty, the company is trying to paint the trial as unfair and wrongly believes it can use the Berlinger footage for that purpose, said Maazel.

"Chevron's real agenda is to intimidate journalists like Berlinger who have the courage to aim their lens at Chevron and expose the company's human rights problems," said Maazel.

CRUDE was named one of the best documentaries of 2009 by the National Board of Review and won awards at 27 film festivals, in addition to being an official selection at Sundance. Berlinger, who has won numerous awards for his documentaries, has credits that include METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER, PARADISE LOST, and BROTHER'S KEEPER.

Berlinger is arguing that his footage is covered by First Amendment privileges that protect reporters and others in the newsgathering business from being compelled to reveal confidential sources and material. The issue has become a flash point recently in the federal judiciary and has led some reporters to spend time in jail rather than disclose the identity of their sources.

The Aguinda plaintiffs separately argued in court filings that Chevron's attempt to subpoena the footage amounted to little more than a "fishing expedition" designed to "silence filmmakers such as Joe Berlinger whose work (however evenhanded) has helped expose Chevron's shocking and unconscionable misconduct."

Chevron has admitted at trial that Texaco deliberately discharged billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into the streams and rivers of Ecuador while it was the exclusive operator of a large concession from 1964 to 1990. Evidence before the court indicates that cancer rates and other oil-related diseases in the area where Texaco operated have skyrocketed, decimating indigenous groups and poisoning the ecosystem in an area the size of Rhode Island.