Joe Berlinger's "Crude" traces 15 years of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Ecuador residents who claim that oil producer Chevron Corp. is liable for contaminating water supplies around the headwaters of the Amazon River.
Sting and wife Trudie Styler are founders of the Rainforest Foundation, and they became involved at Berlinger's behest. The film chronicles Styler's fact-finding trip to Ecuador and includes footage of Sting performing with the Police at last summer's Live Earth music marathon on behalf of global-warming issues.
"I have a walk-on in this film and nothing else. I'm here to support the missus," Sting said in an interview alongside Styler, Berlinger and plaintiffs' attorneys Pablo Fajardo and Steven Donziger.
"I think it's a great battle to fight," said Sting, whose Sundance visit included performing with the house band at a lodge sponsored by Gibson guitars.
"All the things we've been arguing against and about are involved in this film. The right to breathe clean air, to drink fresh water, to feed your children and have a healthy life. No one has the right to stand in the way of that."
Berlinger, whose documentaries include "Brother's Keeper," "Paradise Lost" and "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," heads into the rainforests in "Crude" to record field arguments with the judge and legal teams involved in the lawsuit. He also interviews indigenous people who claim oil-tainted water has caused cancer, skin lesions and other ailments.
"I'm used to seeing great environmental and humanitarian tragedies and problems, and throwing Sting's light around that raises dollars to help relieve them. But I didn't bargain for the devastation I saw when I got there," Styler said. "Speaking with mothers who were nurturing their children with murky, brown, petrol-smelling, horrible water containing many, many contaminants. ... They are in dire need of help."
Plaintiffs' claim Texaco, which was bought by Chevron in 2001, left an environmental mess when it departed Ecuador in the early 1990s after decades of oil drilling.
Chevron contends it was absolved of liability by a 1998 agreement between Ecuador and Texaco, which carried out a $40 million cleanup.
The Rainforest Foundation is helping to bring in tanks to capture rain and provide clean drinking water as a stopgap measure, but the plaintiffs say Chevron needs to pay for long-term measures.
"We're all conscious of the fact that the world without petroleum would basically stop," said Fajardo, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, speaking in Spanish translated by Donziger, an American attorney consulting on the case.
"If these companies act to a greater responsibility, respecting life, I believe we could coexist with oil companies. The problem isn't petroleum in and of itself. It's how it's drilled in our case."
"Crude," one of 16 films in Sundance's U.S. documentary competition, presents a fairly balanced portrait of the case, with Chevron's side of the story well represented.
The company's attorneys and chief environmental scientist argue that its former partner, Petroecuador, continued polluting the area after Texaco departed and that its own research did not support plaintiffs' claims that oil contamination presented health risks.
Berlinger said he set out to present all sides of the story, but he came away with a strong conviction himself.
"When we destroy the rainforest, we destroy our own livelihood. When we fill up our gas tanks in this country with relatively cheap gasoline compared to the rest of the world, it's at the expense of other people who have lived in harmony with nature," Berlinger said. "That was a life-changing epiphany for me. I had heard it as catch-phrases before, but I had never truly felt it."
By DAVID GERMAIN