Crude

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Issue: 
(343)

Director: Joe Berlinger, Release date: 15 January

In a sparsely populated but richly resourced corner of the world the land is plundered with no care for the consequences for the local inhabitants or the environment that sustains them. The story of the exploiter versus the exploited is as old as capitalism and it is certainly the story of oil companies around the world in the 20th century. Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni people fought Shell in Nigeria in the 1990s. Now 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians are conducting a legal battle against Chevron, formerly Texaco, for the impact of oil pollution on their lives.

Crude, subtitled "The Real Price of Oil", is a documentary about their fight. Most of the action portrayed takes place in 2006 and 2007, despite the fact that the lawsuit was initially filed way back in 1993.

Texaco stands charged with decades of pollution and contamination of the water supply in the area, leading to increased incidence of cancer and the inability of crops and animals to thrive. The lawyers for Chevron defended Texaco's record, claiming that no one was supposed to be living in the area; that they had the permission of the Ecuadorian government to use the land for industrial development; and that they were in a consortium with government-run Petro Ecuador so they couldn't be held to account anyway. Crude exposes acutely the manipulative, corrupt nature of these defence lawyers and their strategy.

Against the might of Chevron, and the massive resources they can commit to dragging out the case, stand young Ecuadorian lawyer Pablo Fajardo and Steven Donziger, the plaintiffs' American consulting attorney. These brave inspirational individuals are the heart of the story, but fortunately not the only focus.

The local people are present at the judicial inspections of the pollution with protest placards. Their personal testimonies of the deaths of loved ones and their involvement in deciding what level of compensation they are due all make this story more than a mere courtroom drama. Indeed, we never see the inside of the courtroom at any point in the film.

It becomes clear that this is the fight of a gnat against a giant bear. They are not just fighting one oil company with all its resources, but a transnational corporation that is woven deep into capitalism's fabric. And that's the nub of this tale. It exposes the complete devastation created by a system where profit's needs are served above people's and also the depths that are plumbed to obscure, manipulate and cover up the truth. It demonstrates that those who are trampled on have the burning desire to fight back and spit in the eye of their exploiters. This legal fight has done a tremendous amount of spitting, but it took 13 years to get the case to trial and the prognosis is at least another ten years before any reparations are agreed.

Playing capitalism at its own legal game has little hope of delivering justice. If the placard-waving extras in the background were given a strategy that put them centre stage there might be more hope.