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Joe Berlinger vs. Chevron: Why We Must All Defend Independent Filmmaking

Huffington Post
4 June 2010

I have devoted a significant part of my life's work in support of the independent artist – independent referring not to the size of a project, its funding or subject matter; rather, to the singular vision and voice of that artist. I founded Sundance Institute 30 years ago out of the belief that it is vital to ensure that the artist's voice remains vibrant, valued and heard in civil society at large.

It is with this in mind that I ask you to join me in bringing wider attention and broader support to a critically important case currently in play in U.S. courts.

On May 6, 2010 Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered filmmaker Joe Berlinger to turn over to Chevron Corporation all raw footage – some 600 hours – from the making of his documentary, Crude: The Real Price of Oil. Chevron has sued to use this footage to bolster its legal proceedings in the very same case that is the central subject of Berlinger's film. The potential ramifications of this for the journalist community, film world and society in general are both shocking and profound.

Joe Berlinger has been connected to the Sundance family in a variety of ways for a number of years. Crude made its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival; he has volunteered his time and expertise to Sundance Institute by serving as both a competition Juror and a Festival panelist, and he has participated in the Institute's Documentary Film Program. He has directed Sundance Channel's award-winning Iconoclast series along with Bruce Sinofsky and his films have been broadcast on the Channel as well.

His stellar career includes such landmark documentaries as Brothers Keeper, Paradise Lost and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, all of which premiered at our Festival. But even if there were not these connections, I would strongly call for his support. Here's why.

Filmmakers like Joe Berlinger fulfill a crucial role in today's society by providing independent information on pressing contemporary human rights and social issues. Their success as storytellers depends on access to those men and women willing to talk on camera. If the subjects of those documentaries are fearful of the ramifications of telling the truth then the filmmaker has no story.

Without a shield law, there is no recognized journalist/filmmaker/source protection, creating the very scenario we have now. The judges in this case must recognize this is first and foremost a first amendment issue. The higher courts need to overturn the decision and adhere to higher standards of journalistic privilege.

If we allow the voice of the independent artist to be stifled we should expect nothing less than extreme repercussions for freedom of information...and freedom in general.

You can support Berlinger's legal efforts by going here.