The documentaries that really work for me are those that transcend their topic, ones in which the directors follow their muse, and "allow" the story to come, often in cinéma vérité.
Films such as Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost 1 and 2, Metallica, and some of the Sundance channel episodes of Iconoclasts, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, fit into this category. They are not what they appear to be on the surface. Aspects of human nature are revealed through divining, not hunting down a story. There are themes and moments in this body of work that I consider life changing.
Earlier this month, at the Radical Media production company, it didn't surprise me when Joe Berlinger said he had originally resisted the invitation to film the story for Crude, a legal battle against Chevron related to oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon that resulted in environmental and human rights violations. It wasn't exactly a muse-following project. "I thought it was more like a '60 Minutes' piece," he said, "The films I'm known for are ambiguous human portraits."
He finally agreed to the request, offered by the American legal advisor for the Ecuadorians, on the condition that the film take a neutral position on the lawsuit, which had been going on for sixteen years, with no end in sight.
The film is in theaters now and there is still no end in sight. Crude is not a feel good movie. We don't get to see justice served as we have come to expect in a David and Goliath set up like this-- indigenous people versus a multinational corporation.
Chevron may not even be guilty in the strictest sense of the law, but one can't help but feel some culpability lurking in the shadows of those corporate corridors. Berlinger said he was openly surveilled there, with a Chevron camera crew standing behind him, documenting his filming.
So instead of the story of little guys versus big guys, Berlinger allowed another theme to take its place, an inquiry into "the moral responsibility of handling human rights catastrophes" as well as "the inadequacy of solving these issues through lawsuits."
And there's more to the story when you read between the lines of the film. "It's a comment on the nature of celebrities and political activism," he said. Trudie Styler and Sting participate with support and fundraising through their Rainforest Foundation, but their privileged lives are a stark contrast to the native people of the rainforest that their organization nobly aids.
"Will there be a sequel?" I asked Berlinger. "We've been following the case for Paradise Lost, and we're working on number 3 now, but no, this film took too great a toll on me emotionally and physically," he said.