Joe Berlinger is the producer and director of a 2009 documentary called Crude, which follows the efforts of some 30,000 native Ecuadorians to sue the petrochemical company Chevron for polluting the Amazon. Earlier this month, a federal district court in New York ruled that Berlinger had to turn over about 600 hours of unused footage to Chevron. Somewhere among Berlinger's outtakes, Chevron hopes to find evidence it can use to protect itself against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. But the court's decision has been received by some as a serious imposition on journalistic liberties.
- Filmmakers: This Erodes Our Rights An open letter signed by 200 documentarians wonders: "What's next, phone records and e-mails?" The letter warns that the slippery-slope proposition is particularly unsettling given the current enervated state of the news establishment. "As traditional news media finds itself taking fewer chances due to advertiser fears and corporate ownership, the urgency of bold, groundbreaking journalism through the documentary medium is perhaps greater than ever."
- 'A Chilling Effect' Filmmaker and provocateur Michael Moore worries that if Chevron finds damning evidence against the Ecuadorians in Berlinger's footage, it will make it harder for similar documentaries to get made in the future. "The chilling effect of this is, 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," Moore told The New York Times.
- Flies in the Face of Precedent In a joint op-ed, Michael Winship and Bill Moyers argue that "with certain exceptions, the courts have considered outtakes of a film to be the equivalent of a reporter’s notebook, to be shielded from the scrutiny of others. If we – reporters, journalists, filmmakers – are required to turn research, transcripts and outtakes over to a government or a corporation – or to one party in a lawsuit – the whole integrity of the process of journalism is in jeopardy."
- Shows the True Power of Documentary At Big Think, Tal Pinchevsky looks on the bright side: "Chevron appears to be well aware of the power of documentary film." Pinchevsky notes that "As [Berlinger's] footage has suddenly become part of the Chevron lawsuit profiled in the film, it just might be a first for politically-inspired documentary film ... All of a sudden, documentary may have finally become the social tool filmmakers hoped it would be decades ago."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.