Chevron Battles Documentary Filmmaker Over Footage

By Jason Beahm on July 16, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Attorneys argued before a federal appeals court in Manhattan this week regarding a film about Chevron made by documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. Chevron Corporation has requested unused documentary footage that Berlinger filmed about a 1993 class action lawsuit by the people of Ecuador over pollution in the Amazon. In May a judge ordered Berlinger, to turn over 600 hours of outtakes from his documentary "Crude."

Berlinger and his attorneys are fighting the request, on the grounds that he is protected by "journalists privilege," or the right to refuse to divulge information obtained in a confidential relationship. 49 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of shield law protections, although they vary by state and are not absolute. There is no federal shield law. Attempting to use the shield laws when you are involved in a plaintiff's class-action lawsuit is problematic. There is an applicable legal maxim that says that a shield is not a sword.

Chevron's lawyers have argued that the disputed footage is "urgently needed evidence" for their defense. The judges have favored Chevron's arguments up to this point, though there is some indication that they may limit the amount of footage Berlinger has to turn over, or appoint a special master to review the footage.

Chevron has been continuously fighting the filmmaker and their legal tactics have brought criticism from several prominent figures in the media, including Robert Redford, Bill Moyers, John Perkins, Michael Moore, Ric Burns, the Director's Guild of America, the Writer's Guild of America, the NY Times, LA Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, Associated Press, Dow Jones, HBO, and others.

The action comes as Chevron continues to fight a lawsuit regarding perhaps the worst oil disaster in the history of the world. Chevron admitted to dumping 15.8 billion gallons of toxic "produced water," in the Amazon. Audits suggest the total amount dumped is even higher. At least 345 million gallons of it was pure crude oil, thus the title of the documentary.

Worst of all, the disaster was intentional; Chevron admitted to doing the dumping in order to save $1-3 per barrel of oil. The dumping resulted in massive damage to Ecuador's rainforest. Pollution remains in the area to this day. An independent expert estimated the cleanup alone would cost $27.3 billion.

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