What a great movie! Crude is an environmental legal drama, a thriller and concert film all wrapped into one beautifully shot, fast-paced yet thoughtful and moving documentary about the vast and grotesque damage wrought by Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) in the jungles of Ecuador.

Three years in the making, Joe Berliner’s Crude takes us deep into Ecuador where the people of Cafon tribe and other indigenous and colonial people become the 30,000-strong plaintiffs against Chevron in a class-action lawsuit that has dragged on for over a decade.  The largest piece of evidence is environment itself–an area the size of Rhode Island that is saturated with petrochemical residue and toxic waste.  Oil floats on top the river water where people bathe, wash their clothes and draw water for food and cooking–and the people are dying.

Children have rashes, whole families are devastated by cancer, and yet Chevron’s scientists and lawyers deny the connection between the deaths and illnesses, while admitting to their own estimation of 17 million gallons of spilled petrol. The corporation tries to pass the blame to the state owned PetroEcuador and well, just that people die. It is horrifying to watch Chevron’s attractive female scientist, wearing green no doubt to show her environmental sensitivity, say that the death rates are normal and the water meets United States EPA standards. One of Chevron’s attorneys says that what has happened in Ecuador in term of environmental damage is normal for oil fields–and besides, they aren’t responsible, it’s PetroEcuador which is to blame.

At the center of this legal drama are environmentalist Luis Yanza and Pablo Fajardo, a young former oil field worker turned lawyer, aided by Stephen Donzinger who filed the original class action lawsuit in 1993. The involvement of  Donzinger and a Philadelphia law firm as well as the environmental group Amazon Watch is criticized by Chevron’s Ecuadorean attorneys who–with no irony at all–try to paint the class action lawsuit as an attempt by outside interests to rip off the native population.

Donzinger applies both legal expertise and a PR spin to the lawsuit, enlisting the aid of actress/activist Trudie Styler who created the Rainforest Foundation with her husband Sting. Styler’s involvement brings world attention to the lawsuit and the plaintiffs’ case, as does an article in Vanity Fair profiling Fajardo, who says after reading the article that he wishes there had been one picture of a suffering family because that is what the story is really about.

The tide begins to turn in the plaintiffs’ favor when Ecuador’s new president, the young and charismatic Rafael Correa, is elected. He travels to the jungle–jarring footage of the rainforest contrasts with the flames from the drilling towers and the rusting pipelines throughout the film–and sees the horrors of the oil fields.

It smells like gasoline

he says, sniffing the water. 

Chevron insists its remediation processes, draining and covering dumps were carried out properly, that they have done nothing wrong, then in a legal manoeuvre, try to shut down the independent lab carrying out analysis of the soil and water from the jungle. The judge Chevron tries to use reviews the matter in his office, cameras rolling, lawyers shouting, and reascends the order, allowing the analysis to continue, an eye-opening look at the country’s judicial process.

Fajardo’s adventures as an innocent abroad expand his world view–he is brought to see the Police play at Earth Aid, he wins both the CNN Heroes award and the Goldman Prize (the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize), while  Amazon Watch and Donzinger bring two native Ecuadorans to New York for the Chevron stockholders’ meeting.

In a non-binding judgment, the Ecuadorean courts decide in the plaintiffs’ favor, granting them a multi-billion dollar judgment; Chevron had fought to the case moved to Ecuador hoping for a better outcome. Ooops. However, as Berliner makes clear, the corporation may never have to pay and plaintiffs could die waiting for their case to ultimately settle.

Crude is a fascinating study in politics, money, the environment and the legal system which shows the human toll from our dependence on oil  and corporate greed.