Nothing CRUDE about Exposing Malfeasance

In just under an hour Joe Berlinger’s CRUDE will screen.  This film needs no introduction–its been on the circuit and making waves, and Berlinger is one of the most revered filmmakers working today.  Hear about it from the man himself.

Introduce yourself:

I am Joe Berlinger… once a young filmmaker, but now firmly rooted in middle age.  I have been a working filmmaker for 20 years.  In addition to making feature length films every few years (BROTHER’S KEEPER, PARADISE LOST, METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER), I have a fulfilling career as a nonfiction television director and producer, and TV commercial director.  I also occasionally executive produce films for first-time filmmakers whose stories I believe in.

What inspired this film?   How did you find your subjects?

I met the plaintiffs’ consulting attorney Steven Donziger (who is one of the central characters in CRUDE) in the fall of 2005, through Richard Stratton. Richard is a screenwriter I’d known for a while through our mutual friend, the late Eddie Bunker. Steven told me about the case and it sounded interesting, so I went down to Ecuador to check it out. When I saw the devastation in the Amazon and heard stories from the local people, I was shocked, disturbed and profoundly moved. Plus, it seemed like a huge story that at the time no one was really paying any attention to.  Although I’m always on the lookout for stories as potential film subjects, I didn’t immediately see this as a feature documentary. Despite being deeply affected by what I saw in Ecuador, it didn’t strike me that it would translate into something other than a news story or some kind of one-sided environmental exposé, neither of which interested me.  But I did feel like I wanted to help these people in some way.  I was haunted by images of the people I saw in the Amazon, suffering from disease, eating canned tuna because the fish are gone from the once-pristine river in a place that used to be a paradise. This location, after all, was once of the few places on earth that survived the last ice age, yet it is struggling to survive industrial development.

What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises?

I’ve shot in a number of different countries for many different film and television projects, including four seasons of Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel, which has taken me to a number of far-flung locations, but this was the first time I made an entire feature with so much time spent shooting in a foreign country. I made an hour-long documentary a few years ago called GRAY MATTER, which we shot in Austria, but there’s no real comparison between the two experiences.  CRUDE was a pretty complicated production, and working in the Amazon was exhilarating but also extremely challenging.  Aside from the language, the jungle heat was fairly intense, and the conditions overall were far from cushy. There’s a big difference between touring Europe with Metallica, filming on Richard Branson’s private island, or surfing in Maui with Eddie Vedder for Iconoclasts and this project, where we stayed in sparse accommodations in some fairly dangerous towns with a skeleton crew. Lago Agrio for example, is right near Ecuador’s border with Colombia, and it’s known as a popular R&R destination for members of the FARC guerrilla group. Shushufindi, where [plaintiffs’ attorney] Pablo Fajardo lives, has staggering rates of murder and other violent crime.

 In the jungle itself, we all ended up with multiple cases of chiggers – nasty little insects that get into your skin and itch like hell – and other a variety of other ailments (Michael Bonfiglio, my producer and 2nd Unit director, contracted Hepatitis A). I did have a budget on CRUDE, but we stretched it to the breaking point as the story evolved and we had to keep shooting well beyond what was initially allotted in order to capture what was happening.  With the massive scale on which this story played out, we wound up shooting six hundred hours of material, on three different continents and in more than a dozen different cities.

Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?

I am a huge fan of earlier cinéma-vérité classics like SALESMAN, GREY GARDENS, GIMME SHELTER, and TITICUT FOLLIES.

What is your all time favorite documentary?

David and Albert Maysles’ SALESMAN and Les Blank’s BURDEN OF DREAMS.

What other projects are in the pipeline?

I am developing several documentary features, including one on artist/writer/filmmaker Clive Barker.  I am also developing two feature narrative projects, EDUCATION OF A FELON about cult crime writer Edward Bunker and FACING THE WIND, a true story about a guy who kills his entire family and then starts life all over again.  It based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Julie Salamon.  I hope we will be embarking on Season 5 of Iconoclasts for the Sundance Channel as well.  

Why did you become a filmmaker?

It was easier than sitting at a desk.  I also wanted to explore the world, and I felt the world was much more complex than the mainstream media lets on, so I wanted to tell those kinds of stories – those that break down stereotypes and demonstrate that people have more in common with each other than they realize.

What are some of your creative influences?

I like to wander in museums, particularly the photography galleries at MOMA and ICP.  When I really need to clear my head, I play with my children.

 Did you go to film school?

No. I majored in English and German. I began my career in 1983 in advertising, working in the Frankfurt (Germany) office of Ogilvy & Mather (because I spoke German), a big New York based multinational ad agency.  After getting transferred back to New York City in 1985, I hired the Maysles Brothers (GIMME SHELTER, GREY GARDENS) to shoot an American Express commercial that I was producing.  David Maysles (who died in 1987) and I hit it off, and he invited me to work at their company to develop their TV commercial business, which I did for 5 years, using my time there as a working film school.  At Maysles, I met Bruce Sinofsky, who was an editor there for commercials. Together, we went off and made BROTHER’S KEEPER using 10 credit cards and second mortgages on our homes.  Ultimately, it had a happy ending — the film won the Audience Award at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.

What do you shoot the film on?

CRUDE was shot on HDV, with inexpensive Sony Z1U pro-sumer cameras. In fact, CRUDE was a conscious attempt to return to my roots making BROTHER’S KEEPER almost 20 years ago (made with my frequent collaborator Bruce Sinofsky).  As we did back then, I just dove into a subject that I wanted to film without worrying about how we were going to pay for it or who was going to show it.  (CRUDE didn’t get funded until we’d been shooting for nearly a year).  The last few years of my career have been marked by bigger budget projects like METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER and several high-profile TV series, including Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel.  I felt I was drifting from that internal fire that incites me to make a film for the love of the process and the desire to tell a certain story for a big-screen audience. It was also a return to a kind of handmade, DIY filmmaking for me, largely because of the massive scope of this story and the kinds of locations we were shooting in made it something of a guerilla effort.

What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit?

We have so far had a very successful festival run, and the response to the film and the story it tells has been overwhelmingly positive. In some ways, the relative success of the film is unexpected, given its humble beginnings, but I am very grateful for the success. Probably the strangest thing that has happened was having Paris Hilton show up at our premiere after-party at Sundance. That was pretty surreal, considering that CRUDE is about completely disenfranchised people living in abject poverty.

Why did you want to screen your film at SILVERDOCS?

What documentarian would not want to show his/her film at Silverdocs, one of the leading nonfiction festivals in the world?  Also, with this particular story, a fight is brewing between lobbyists for and against Chevron in this case, so the D.C. area is a very appropriate venue for this film.

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