P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins and a founding editor of Parabola, once wrote that mythic heroes (and she stressed that potential heroes are everywhere) were not so much setting out on voyages of discovery but of rediscovery; “that the hero is seeking not for something new but for something old, a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity.” In Joe Berlinger’s powerful documentary Crude, Pablo Fajardo, an attorney who was once a desperately poor manual laborer, stands up for 30,000 Ecuadorian rainforest settlers and indigenous people. They call themselves los afectados, “the affected ones,” and allege that they live in a “death zone” of pollution that is roughly the size of Rhode Island that was created when Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron in 2001) began drilling for oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon in the late 60s and 70s. At some point in the midst of a hard, dangerous early life, Fajardo happened to attend a youth group run by a Spanish priest that instilled in him a sense of the underlying dignity of all human life–including poor and indigenous lives. Although Crude does an admirable job of offering a balanced point of view, early viewers of Crude have compared Farjardo to David going up against Goliath. He has David’s faith that he is on the side of truth. No matter how much money Chevron has to spend, he says at one point. You can’t put a price on clean water or food or the inherent value of human life and a healthy planet.
In 2005, Joe Berlinger set out on his own journey of rediscovery as a filmmaker. Berlinger visited the Ecuador and was shown an ecological disaster. He saw and smelled the petrochemical sludge that for decades has been dumped into huge open pits or directly into the water and soil–a system designed by Texaco. Berlinger, whose previous film, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, had a four million dollar budget, went into the Ecuadorian jungle with a skeleton crew and shot footage, not sure how he was going to finance it, not knowing how the story line or the film itself was going to turn out.
“I felt like the universe was tapping me on the shoulder,” Berlinger told me by phone. “In many ways the legal case I was filming is an excuse to explore the plight of indigenous people who got no benefits from industrializtion, only heartache.”
When was the last time you felt that the universe was tapping you on the shoulder? Can you recally feeling as if you were stepping onto a new path, heading into the unknown just because it felt like the right thing to do?