MANHATTAN (CN) – Director Joseph Berlinger tonight will show his 2009 documentary, “Crude,” to benefit his legal defense fund. Berlinger has been fighting Chevron in court since early May over a subpoena that would force him to turn over 600 hours of raw footage from the movie about oil drilling’s contribution to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and a lawsuit that resulted from it.
The International Documentary Association and Writers Guild of America are co-sponsoring the benefit screening, to be followed by a question and answer session with Berlinger, his attorney Maura Wogan, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, and the president of the Writers Guild of America East, Michael Winship.
Two hundred people quickly snatched up tickets at $16 each for the 8 p.m. screening at the IFC Center, and Berlinger said in a phone interview that 75 people so far have been turned away.
“We didn’t have sellouts during the theatrical run, so the film has been resurrected in a way,” Berlinger said. “The fact that it’s a sellout crowd of a movie that was released a year ago and is widely available on DVD and Netflix shows that people aren’t coming for the movie, they’re coming for the discussion.”
Berlinger says he appreciates the public’s show of support, even though tonight’s contributions are a dime in the bucket of swelling defense costs.
“Our legal bills are huge – running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Berlinger said. “It’s more about community support and community awareness than about the relatively small amount of funds that the evening will generate. Of course, every little bit helps, and I appreciate it.”
Berlinger says his attorneys at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz have waived some of their fees, and he is paying the rest through a combination of his own funds and help from private individuals.
“The costs are mounting, and it’s scary,” Berlinger said. “I don’t have deep pockets. I have support, but at the end of the day the bills are in my name.”
“Crude” chronicles the devastation of the Amazon rainforest from oil production and provides an intimate look at a class-action against Chevron in Lago Agrio, Ecuador. Berlinger spent 3 years shadowing attorneys from Kohn, Swift and Graf, who are suing Chevron on behalf on nongovernmental organizations for $27 billion.
Berlinger appealed the May ruling from U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who granted Chevron’s request to see all 600 hours of “Crude” footage.
Wogan argued that turning over the outtakes violated Berlinger’s journalistic privilege and would be an unnecessary and unfair burden.
“The burden in arguing for Berlinger far exceeds any burden in turning over the film,” Kaplan said in the hearing.
Berlinger said that Kaplan’s remark “was a very narrow and literal definition of burden.”
“The burden is that I am a filmmaker who makes these, kind of investigative reports – three of my documentaries are about court cases,” Berlinger said. “The burden is that if I can’t confidently promise confidentiality to my sources in the future, there’s a good chance the access would be denied, and I would be out of these films.”
Berlinger says he is fighting the precedent that would be set if he turns over the outtakes.
“That’s why [First Amendment lawyer] Floyd Abrams filed the amicus brief on behalf of 13 media companies,” Berlinger said. “For corporately owned media to step up and say, ‘despite the advertising dollars you may give us, this is going to hurt the newsgathering business.’ We’re not talking about the cost of dubbing tapes – that’s irrelevant.”
Berlinger has been collecting donations on Kickstarter.com, through the Crude First Amendment Fund. So far, 421 backers have pledged nearly $27,000 – surpassing his goal of $20,000.