By now, the threat posed by Big Oil's stranglehold on our political leadership should be as obvious as the oil slick spreading on the Gulf. With oil companies ranking as seven of the top ten largest corporations on the planet, and the fossil fuels industry spending colossal amounts of money to disrupt meaningful efforts to combat climate change, people are waking up to the peril represented by what oil analyst and author Antonia Juhasz calls 'The Tyranny of Oil."
Last week I wrote about the latest threat posed by Big Oil– this time, an attack by oil giant Chevron against the First Amendment.
Chevron is going after acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger, the director of 'CRUDE', which tells the story of the company's toxic legacy in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. Journalists, filmmakers, and civil libertarians – along with supporters of the campaign to hold Chevron accountable for its devastation of the Amazon – were appalled when Chevron went to court to demand that Berlinger turn over all of the 600+ hours of footage he shot during the making of CRUDE.
Chevron is hoping to mine the footage for any material that might help its relentless public relations schemes to try to discredit the plaintiffs, their attorneys and the courts in Ecuador.
Late last week, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan sided with Chevron, sending shock waves through the documentary film community.
But now, filmmakers – including the most prominent documentary filmmakers in the world – are rallying behind Joe as he appeals the misguided judgment.
On Wednesday, Dave Itzkoff wrote on The New York Times' Arts Beat blog:
The International Documentary Association and a group of filmmakers that includes 20 Academy Award winners and many more nominees have issued an open letter in support of Joe Berlinger, the director of “Crude,” and objecting to a judge’s ruling that Chevron could subpoena Mr. Berlinger’s footage from that film.
The letter is signed by some twenty Oscar-winning filmmakers, as well as the Board of Directors of the International Documentary Association. Signatories include Michael Moore, who had already railed against the potential "chilling effect" on investigative journalism that the ruling could have, as well as Louie Psihoyos, director of this year's Academy Award-winning documentary film The Cove, about dolphin slaughter in Japan.
Entitled 'An open letter in support of Joe Berlinger and the documentary filmmaking team of "Crude"', the letter reads in part:
While we commend Judge Kaplan for stating "that the qualified journalists' privilege applies to Berlinger's raw footage", we are nonetheless dismayed both by Chevron's attempts to go on a "fishing expedition" into the edit rooms and production offices of a fellow documentary filmmaker without any particular cause or agenda, and the judge's allowance of said intentions. What's next, phone records and e-mails?
At the heart of journalism lies the trust between the interviewer and his or her subject. Individuals who agree to be interviewed by the news media are often putting themselves at great risk, especially in the case of television news and documentary film where the subject's identity and voice are presented in the final report. If witnesses sense that their entire interviews will be scrutinized by attorneys and examined in courtrooms they will undoubtedly speak less freely. This ruling surely will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere, should it stand.
In addition to those mentioned above, the signatories read like a veritable who's who of documentary filmmaking (and a few non-doc-makers too) in the late 20th and 21st centuries– Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney ('Taxi to the Dark Side', Oscar Winner), Davis Guggenheim ('An Inconvenient Truth, Oscar Winner), Ken Burns, Joel Cohen, Barbara Kopple, Nick Broomfield, D.A. Pennebaker, James Longley, Jehane Noujaim, and many, many more.
The letter concludes:
This case offers a clear and compelling argument for more vigorous federal shield laws to protect journalists and their work, better federal laws to protect confidential sources, and stronger standards to prevent entities from piercing the journalists' privilege. We urge the higher courts to overturn this ruling to help ensure the safety and protection of journalists and their subjects, and to promote a free and vital press in our nation and around the world.
Today, another of the signatories, respected journalist and commentator Bill Moyers, raised his voice even louder in defense of Joe. Moyers and co-author Michael Winship – president of the Writers Guild of America, East – have an article on Huffington Post today, which is sure to make waves. In 'Chevron's "Crude" Attempt to Suppress Free Speech', Moyers and Winship write:
This is a serious matter for reporters, filmmakers and frankly, everyone else. Tough, investigative reporting without fear or favor -- already under siege by severe cutbacks and the shutdown of newspapers and other media outlets -- is vital to the public awareness and understanding essential to a democracy. As Michael Moore put it, "The chilling effect of this is, [to] someone like me, if something like this is upheld, the next whistleblower at the next corporation is going to think twice about showing me some documents if that information has to be turned over to the corporation that they're working for."
The film community is rallying to support Joe and the team behind his powerful documentary CRUDE. They have appealed the ruling granting access to his raw footage, and have filed a motion to stay the District Court's ruling while they file an appeal with the Circuit Court of Appeals.
Supporters of the communities working to hold Chevron accountable are also rallying to support Joe and highlight this attack as part and parcel of the oil company's abusive legal and PR strategy to evade responsibility for its toxic legacy in the Amazon.
In the meantime, one simple thing you can do is to watch CRUDE (buy the DVD) if you haven't already, and if you have, spread the word about this critically-acclaimed, award-winning film. Email your friends, post about it on Facebook, hold a screening party at your home with friends and stream it on Netflix.
And stay tuned for more ways to help Joe, and the communities in Ecuador who continue to suffer as Chevron finds ever more creative ways to change the subject.
Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign