Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Federal District Court in New York granted Chevron's request for a subpoena, which demands access to over 600 hours of footage from "Crude," a documentary that chronicles a legal battle being supported by 30,000 Amazonian settlers hoping to hold Texaco (now owned by Chevron) responsible for environmental devastation in Ecuador.
Joseph Berlinger, the filmmaker behind "Crude," claimed he was protected by "journalistic privilege," but, according to the New York Times, he qualified for the privilege but "the conditions for overcoming that privilege had been met" by Chevron.
Berlinger plans to ask the judge to "stay the
subpoena" so decision can be appealed.
Many in the documentary filmmaking community have indicated that they will support Berlinger's effort to appeal and resist this decision. Filmmakers understand what this decision could mean for the future of documentary filmmaking.
Gordon Quinn, artistic director and founder of Kartemquin Films in Chicago, said, "My experience is that the 'outs' of a film usually show the big and the powerful to be worse than they are portrayed in our films, but if we have to turn over footage and spend time in court and defend ourselves for expressing our First Amendment rights it can be an overwhelming burden for a small organization like ours."
Quinn added, "It has the feel of intimidation and using the legal process to let us know don'ttake onthe big guys or they can drive you crazy and drain your resources by tying you up in court."
Documentary instructor at Columbia College Chicago and director of "The Return of Navajo Boy," a film that touched upon the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo, Jeff Spitz, had not heard about it. He noted from his experience making "Navajo Boy, "The extraction industries have absolutely no interest in the safety and/or benefits of their work for indigenous people. Indigenous people pay the hidden price of our energy."
An Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago with forty years of documentary filmmaking experience, Russell Porter, reacted, "The reported federal judgment that filmmaker Joe Berlinger must turn over his outtakes to Chevron's defense lawyers strikes me as an arbitrary and dangerous interpretation of the First Amendment."
"The role of independent documentary filmmakers has almost totally replaced what was historically the function of investigative journalism," said Porterin fact there is no difference between the methodology and social/political function of filmmakers like Berlinger and that of - say - Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal."
New York Times writer for the ArtsBeat Blog diligently followed this story conducting interviews with filmmakers Michael Moore and Ric Burns (the director of "Andy Warhol" and PBS' "New York") on Thursday.
Burns reacted, Chevron is "really saying 'O.K., pal, drop your drawers, and with it, 600 hours of film.'" And added, "That's insane. That's a weapon so blunt that it's impossible not to feel that Judge Kaplan doesn't care about the impression that is conveyed."
Burns added this "contributes to a general culture of contempt for investigative journalism" and next time someone goes to make a "Crude" the group that provides information on the subject will be a "much leerier group of informants."
Michael Moore had "never heard of such a ruling." Moore told the ArtsBeat Blog he never had to deal with any corporation suing him to find out how he gathered his information.
"Obviously the ramifications of this go far beyond documentary films, if corporations are allowed to pry into a reporter's notebook or into a television station's newsroom," said Moore.
Moore hoped the decision would be overturned on appeal and, if not, Berlinger should "resist the subpoena." He also said that "hundreds of filmmakers" would support Berlinger's fight to not turn over his footage to Chevron.
Documentary as Journalism?