Documentary Filmmaker Joe Berlinger Under Fire

Earlier this month, a major blow was dealt to documentary filmmakers' and journalists' First Amendment rights. On May 6, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled in favor of a motion by the Chevron oil company subpoenaing 600 hours of footage of Joe Berlinger's documentary Crude, which exposes the corporate malfeasance and massive environmental negligence of oil behemoth Texaco (later purchased by the multinational corporation Chevron) in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Despite the documentary's impressive neutrality, the oil company, which had more than a decade ago fought to have the 17-year-old case moved to Ecuador for a more fair trial, is now back in U.S. courts attempting to gain access to Berlinger's raw footage in order to defend itself against the $27 billion dollar class-action lawsuit. Rather than ask for a narrow request of specific footage, Chevron's lawyers have asked for all 600 hours to go on what Berlinger calls "a fishing expedition" against plaintiff's attorney Steven Donziger. According to The Wall Street Journal, recent developments show that Chevron also intends to try to discredit Ecuadorian court-appointed, independent expert Richard Cabrera with the footage. Filmmakers and writers have rallied around Berlinger. A letter of support signed by 200 documentarians, including Alex Gibney, Michael Moore, D.A. Pennebaker, Bruce Sinofsky, Barbara Kopple, Nick Broomfield, Morgan Spurlock, Ken Burns, and Haskell Wexler, appeared in the May 12 New York Times. The Writers Guild of America, East/ AFL-CIO (WGAE) has also put its support behind Berlinger. Ignoring his first handover deadline, on May 20, Judge Kaplan announced that Berlinger had 10 days before deciding whether or not to hand over his footage to Chevron. Last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided that it will hear Berlinger's appeal on June 8.

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