With the Gulf of Mexico oil spill still in the headlines, I thought it fitting this week to watch some documentaries about that troublesome black liquid known as petroleum. I'm sure that one day we'll get a film or three specifically about BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, and I'm also looking forward to the HBO premiere of the relevant, critically acclaimed Sundance-winner GasLand on June 21 (our own Jette enjoyed the film at the Marfa Film Festival), but for now let me share some thoughts on two very different yet similarly titled docs involving oil, Basil Gepke and Ray McCormack's A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash and Joe Berlinger's Crude.

I'll start with the former, which was released earlier (in 2006) and which is by far the weaker of the two. Honestly, I'm not sure how the film garnered so many positive reviews, as well as awards from multiple film festivals and a high ranking from a lot of voters on IMDb, when it's basically the cinematic equivalent of a high school research paper -- and not one that would receive top marks. The thesis, that we're heading toward a shortage and ultimately will see a depletion of the resource, is obvious. So is the evidence, which goes through the motions of discussing population increase, particularly as it matters with greater-consuming countries like China and India, and especially the issue of human dependence on oil for a lot more than just fuel. The well-known solutions are also tossed around. Hey, have you heard about this thing called solar energy? If not, this film is for you, the guys who've been living in a cave for thirty years.
A Crude Awakening is also impaired by very lazy filmmaking, too dependent on old gas commercials and other silly black & white archival footage. Plus, more random shots of highway traffic, particularly those foregrounded against anonymous cityscapes, then you can possibly imagine. Basically, it's apparent that anytime Gepke and McCormack needed an insert of something, they just grabbed from a stack of stock footage of automobiles driving and commercial jets flying. I was bored of the visuals within minutes. If you end up giving the film a try and you're similarly bored early on, just turn it off. There isn't much to the documentary other than random -- and I mean sometimes extremely random, as in unnecessary shots of women walking down sidewalks in slow motion -- intermixed with interviews with far too many experts, all of them interchangeable despite how significant they may seem.

Aside from the multitude of interview subjects (guys, it's okay to exclude certain people, even if they're former heads of Shell, or former advisers to the Bush Administration or congressmen or ivy league professors or Hummer salesmen), my main problem with the talking heads is that a lot of the time they're all saying the same things. This makes sense for a film in which the discourse is so familiar. You, reader, probably could be on screen providing as good an opinion of how and why we're running out of oil and how and why this is bad news. And you probably wouldn't have annoyed me as much as the Stanford professor who literally calls World War I and World War II "our very first wars." Huh? She also claims the Gulf War was the first ever conflict over oil. I don't think so.

Now, if you want to see a great documentary involving oil, check out Crude. The film comes from the typically terrific Joe Berlinger, who gave us the classic docs Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murderers at Robin Hood Hills -- and its slightly lesser sequel Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (by the way, part 3 is currently in post-production) -- as well as the highly acclaimed Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Sure, he also co-wrote and directed Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, but when he's working with non-fiction he's proven to be a filmmaker worthy of following through his career.

This time he focuses his cameras on another legal case, a lengthy and expensive one between indigenous peoples of Ecuador and Chevron, the multinational energy corporation being put to the responsibility of cleaning up an environmental disaster blamed on Texaco (which has since become a part of Chevron), as well as making reparations to the cancer-stricken natives. Going back and forth between the Amazonian village (and Quito) and protest efforts in the States, the film primarily follows the plaintiffs' lawyers, particularly the American lead, Steve Donziger, while also making time for a goodwill trip from Sting's wife, Trudie Styler, a concert featuring her husband's band, The Police, and a supportive visit to the village by (then) newly elected President Rafael Correa.

Crude is mostly what you might expect from a documentary involving an environmental civil action case in a third world kind of setting, but that doesn't mean it's anywhere near as predictable or avoidable as A Crude Awakening. One of the most fascinating parts of the film involves the actual trial, which is conducted outdoors and rather casually. I've really never seen anything like it before. I was also pleased with the amount of coverage of Chevron's arguments, which come mainly in the form of PR spins, but I'm glad it's all there. In the end, I'm unsure whether Chevron is truly more responsible for the Lago Agria oil field mess than the Ecuadorian government, regardless of the latter's recent change in leadership. I like that even in recognizing that Crude is entirely on the side of the plaintiffs, I don't feel like the film itself is unfairly trying to sway the viewer. And the fact that the trial isn't concluded in the film (which states there could be another ten years left until a verdict), makes it even more left up in the air as to who should and who will win the case.

The sad but certainly intriguing thing is that the case may never really end as it should, partly because of Berlinger's documentary. A few weeks ago, Crude made the news because a federal judge has granted Chevron's request to subpoena 600 hours of footage shot for the film because it might show "improper collaboration" on the part of the plaintiffs. Documentarians ending up involved in cases isn't new, of course. Sometimes, as with the films The Thin Blue Lineand Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, they can be employed by the defense in murder trials (Nick Broomfield ended up documenting the process of his film being used in Wuornos' trial for a follow-up, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer). Other times, a corporation can attempt to bury a film, as Dole tried last year with Bananas!* Berlinger is of course fighting the subpoena on First Amendment grounds, so we'll see if he manages to get away without hurting those people he meant to help out with the documentary.

The outcome of that story could be as significant as the outcome of the case itself, as it will affect the way many documentarians work and how likely they are to gain the trust of subjects. It also adds to the discussion of the documentary form and whether it's to be accepted as investigative journalism. Many filmmakers have already gotten involved, including Michael Moore and more than 400 other prominent documentarians who signed an open letter in support of Berlinger. The story is ongoing, so I may revisit it if I can, but otherwise bookmark AJ Schnack's blog for continued coverage. And in the meantime, do watch Crude, my doc pick of the week.
categories Columns, Cinematical