Joe Berlinger, the director of Crude–and our guest on Movie Night in August 2009–has been ordered by a federal judge to turn over 600 hours of unused documentary footage to energy giant Chevron as part of the lawsuit discussed in the film. For more about the lawsuit, which pitted indigenous Ecuadorians against Chevron, click here.
Berlinger and his attorneys will appeal the decision.
In the wake of Judge Lawrence Kaplan’s decision, 200 prominent documentary filmmakers–including 20 Academy Award winners and names like Alex Gibney, Michael Moore, D.A. Pennebaker, Haskell Wexler, Laura Poitras, Louie Psihoyos, Nick Broomfield, Morgan Spurlock, Bill Moyers, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, Robert Greenwald and Ed Zwick–have signed an open letter of support protesting the breadth of the decision by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan. The letter, which was sent from the president of International Documentary Association with support or the IDA board reads:
May 13, 2010
An Open Letter in Support of Joe Berlinger
and the Documentary Filmmaking Team of
As members of the documentary film community, we the undersigned strongly object to the Honorable Judge Lewis A. Kaplan’s ruling last week in the case involving our colleague Joe Berlinger, the Chevron Corporation, and Berlinger’s 600 hours of raw footage shot during production of his documentary film “Crude”.
Judge Kaplan sided with Chevron and ruled that Berlinger must turn over all of his raw footage to Chevron for their use in the lawsuit discussed in the film. Berlinger and his legal team plan to appeal the ruling.
In cases such as these involving access to a journalist’s work material, whether they involve a newspaper or online reporter, a radio interviewer, a television news producer, or a documentary filmmaker, it is understood that First Amendment protection of the journalist’s privilege is never absolute. Typically, if such privilege is successfully rebutted in court, a turn-over order demanding a document or other thing is issued and the journalist must comply or face the consequences. Therefore, it is astounding to us that Judge Kaplan demanded that all of the footage shot during the production of the film be handed over to the attorneys of Chevron, given that the privilege exists primarily to protect against the wholesale exposure of press files to litigant scrutiny.
While we commend Judge Kaplan for stating “that the qualified journalists’ privilege applies to Berlinger’s raw footage”, we are nonetheless dismayed both by Chevron’s attempts to go on a “fishing expedition” into the edit rooms and production offices of a fellow documentary filmmaker without any particular cause or agenda, and the judge’s allowance of said intentions. What’s next, phone records and e-mails?
At the heart of journalism lies the trust between the interviewer and his or her subject.
Individuals who agree to be interviewed by the news media are often putting themselves at great risk, especially in the case of television news and documentary film where the subject’s identity and voice are presented in the final report. If witnesses sense that their entire interviews will be scrutinized by attorneys and examined in courtrooms they will undoubtedly speak less freely. This ruling surely will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere, should it stand.
Though many of us work independently of large news organizations, we nevertheless hold ourselves to the highest of journalistic standards in the writing, producing, and editing of our films. In fact, 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.
This case offers a clear and compelling argument for more vigorous federal shield laws to protect journalists and their work, better federal laws to protect confidential sources, and stronger standards to prevent entities from piercing the journalists’ privilege. We urge the higher courts to overturn this ruling to help ensure the safety and protection of journalists and their subjects, and to promote a free and vital press in our nation and around the world.
For more from Joe Berlinger on this, check out his blog on the Crude website