NY judge says filmmaker can give oil footage later

May 20, 2010 7:39:21 PM PDT
A judge said Thursday that a filmmaker can wait until the end of the month to decide whether to comply with his order to release raw footage of a documentary about a legal dispute between Chevron and Ecuadoreans over oil contamination.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan had earlier set a deadline of Friday for filmmaker Joseph Berlinger to turn over raw footage from the film, "Crude," which was released last year. He now has 10 more days to do so.

Berlinger has challenged the order on the grounds that the film's outtakes are protected from disclosure by the First Amendment. The judge declined to block his ruling while the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether to hear the issue.

The lawsuit in Ecuador is the continuation of a 17-year-old legal battle. Ecuadoreans claim their land was contaminated during three decades of oil exploration and extraction by Texaco Inc., which became a wholly owned subsidiary of San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron Corp. in 2001.

Chevron says the raw footage will help bolster its case that lawyers for the plaintiffs have worked to manipulate the judicial system in Ecuador for their own benefit.

Berlinger's lawyer was pleased with the judge's decision Thursday.

"We're just happy that this order gives us the time we need to raise these important issues concerning the rights of journalists to protect their privileged material from compelled disclosure," attorney Maura Wogan said.

Chevron attorney Randy Mastro called the judge's decision to decline to indefinitely block his order to turn over the film outtakes "a complete repudiation" of every argument made on behalf of Berlinger.

"We're looking forward to getting these outtakes," he said.

During a court hearing Wednesday, the judge said he will not be swayed by claims by lawyers for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs that hundreds of filmmakers had written a letter to say Berlinger's rights were being violated.

The lawyers had noted in a release that filmmakers Michael Moore and Ric Burns, among others, had criticized the judge's decision to force Berlinger to turn over his raw footage to lawyers for Chevron.

Some of those criticizing the ruling had said it would be difficult to persuade sources to cooperate with filmmakers if the decision were not reversed.

The judge, though, said he concluded that Berlinger had no confidentiality agreements with anyone interviewed for the film that would raise questions of a journalist's privilege.

"These matters get decided according to the law, not letter-writing campaigns and not celebrity lawyers," the judge said at Wednesday's hearing. "Everybody loves rainforests in the abstract. Everybody hates oil companies. We understand that. Come on, let's get down to the law."


n his ruling Thursday, the judge said Berlinger could have assured his subjects that no footage in which they appeared would be used without their consent.

"Had he done so, he would have been in a much stronger position," the judge wrote. "But he wanted and got complete freedom to use whatever he shot. That freedom is not consistent with his claim that disclosure of what he did not use in the film would impose an undue burden on his or other journalists' activities."