Rumble in the jungle

Joe Berlinger's latest cinéma- vérité feature about Big Oil's lasting effect on the people of Ecuador has just won the One World Media Award for best international documentary. Realscreen spoke with Berlinger about his decision to tackle this film even though he's busy enough with his TV and commercial endeavors.
June 25, 2009

Joe Berlinger is probably best known to non-doc audiences for his team up with Bruce Sinofsky on Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, but his other vérité-style creations with Sinofsky, Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost, are stories of gripping court cases that continue to lure audiences to this day.

Flying solo, Berlinger has created a new feature doc following yet another court case, this one effecting over 30,000 people. Crude is the story of the ongoing $27 billion court case between Chevron and the people of Ecuador who have been dealing with the aftermath of Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) pulling out of the region after drilling since the 1960s. The film shows a region where the soil and the water is visibly full of oil and people are getting sick and dying at high rates.

Berlinger was first brought to the region by Steven Donziger, the consulting attorney for the plaintiffs, in 2005. At that time the filmmaker was skeptical about taking on this story because it was a 13-year-old case, and he was happily working on his commercial and television projects, such as Sundance’s Iconoclasts, of which he is a co-creator. But after voyaging to the Amazon to see the devastation for himself, he quickly felt that this was a story he had to tell.

When he arrived in Ecuador, the first sight he saw that hit him hard enough to make him want to dedicate three years of his life to the story was a group of people sitting around a large can of tuna. The image of these people sitting in the heart of the rainforest, one of the world’s more important natural resources, eating fish out of a can struck him hard. ‘It was partially the tuna and partially the US media ignoring the story that made me want to make this film,’ says Berlinger.

For the first year that Berlinger was working on Crude he was funding it himself. Not since Brother’s Keeper has he made a film that wasn’t first funded by television, but he was willing to start telling this story on his own dime. Berlinger feels one must be as much a business person as a filmmaker in the doc business in order to successfully make films, and a key to his success is that he is both. In the end, Crude was funded in part by Netflix’s now-defunct Red Envelope division, partially by a few friends of Berlinger’s and the rest through a private investor.

Crude, which just won the One World Media Award for best international documentary, has also won a number of other awards from festivals including from Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and a Human Spirit Award from the Nashville Film Festival.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.