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Jennifer Merin

What Happens After Crude?

By September 9, 2009

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Crude, filmmaker Joe Berlinger's brilliant and heartbreaking revelation of Texaco/Chevron's oil despoil of thousands of square miles of Ecuadorian rain forest and rivers, ends the way most verite documentaries do, with the implicit tag line 'to be continued.'

Documentaries end, life goes on or -- as is made clear in Crude -- perhaps it doesn't.

As Crude's end credits scroll past, we're well aware that the tribal Amazonian people. whom we've met in the film and come to care about, still face death by cancer and other diseases brought on by exposure to chemical toxicity, and are still fighting to keep their connection to their homelands and prevent the extinction of their ancient tribal cultures.

And, we've seen that the heroic young Ecuadorian lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, who has championed the tribal people is still engaged in active battle with the multinational in the plaintiff's 27-billion dollar lawsuit against Chevron that's using its deep pockets and political clout to delay -- but hopefully not bury -- the legal process.

We are concerned about what will happen next. We want to know. Unfortunately, unlike Star Trek and Harry Potter, documentaries -- even those that do well at the box office -- rarely have sequels. (Michael Apted's Up Series is one exception). So, life goes on -- or doesn't -- and documentary filmmakers move on to their next projects, even if they're still concerned about the ongoing situation -- often a tragedy -- that they've just spent several years of their lives and careers documenting.

So, without a sequel on the horizon, how do we keep track of what happens in the life's next chapter?

Joe Berlinger, who considers himself to be a cinema verite documentarian rather than a filmmaker advocate, told me recently that he is still deeply concerned about the people who appear in Crude and their plight.

"How do you know when you're finished making a film like this one?," I asked him.

"Well, there's the money factor," he said. "Eventually you've tapped all your sources. But that's not the only consideration. You've got to be mindful of the story you're telling and recognize when something happens that creates a shift in the direction or tone of the story line, suggesting that there's a new chapter. You then have to edit your chapter of the story -- which always represents years of work and an extraordinary amount of footage -- into a reasonable length for a feature film. Then you spend another year or so making sure that the film gets distributed and seen as widely as possible -- I'm traveling with Crude and making personal appearances in different cities as the film opens nationwide. Eventually, you have to begin working on new projects. You can't become responsible for the outcome of the story you're telling, and gradually you lose contact with the people in your film, but you never quite separate from them. Especially in a film like Crude, you continue to be concerned.

There will be no sequel from Berlinger, but the filmmaker has found another way to follow post-Crude events and eventualities and update the film's followers about what's going on in real time.

"I built the Crude Website to keep the heat up on public awareness about the environmental issues and the plight of the people," explains Berlinger. "That was and is my personal commitment, my way of helping -- and encouraging others to do so. I personally tend to the Website, answer the questions and comments that come in from around the world. It is enormously gratifying to have that interaction with people who learn about and from the film, and care about the outcome. I think the Web provides a great forum for documentary filmmakers, one that allows us to keep in touch with our projects in a unique and effective way."

Crude opens at NYC's IFC Center on September 9, with Berlinger in house for a post-screening Q&A. Then the film platforms in other cities, with Berlinger on board. But you don't have to see the film to find a visit to the Crude Website a rewarding experience. You can become part of the concerned community, and, meanwhile, you can read my full review.

(PHOTO: Joe Berlinger. Courtesy Joe Berlinger.)


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