It’s never too early for Oscar buzz. Will Brad Pitt get the best actor award for his role as the canny baseball executive in “Moneyball”? Should Meryl Streep be the favorite as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” even though nobody’s seen it yet? And most important, which film will take home the statuette in Oscar’s newest category, Best Camouflage Job By A Law Firm Masquerading Its Propaganda As A Documentary?
Alas, the Motion Picture Academy hasn’t really created that Oscar category yet. But if it had, the competition would be fierce. In a trend that’s equally noxious for the cinema and the law, big-time trial lawyers have infiltrated the ranks of documentary filmmakers, using them as cover to covertly gather information, apply political pressure and poison jury pools.
Consider these examples:
• Director Jason Glaser, whose film “Banana Land” purports to document corporate exploitation of agricultural workers in Latin America, revealed in court last year that while making his movie he was secretly on the payroll of Provost-Umphrey, a big Texas law firm that represents banana workers suing Dole Food Co. over its use of pesticides.
The law firm paid him $17,000 a month, testified Glaser, who was untroubled by questions of conflict of interest since he’s not a journalist but “a facilitator and an activist.” And, he added, objectivity is all humbug anyway: “I don’t think anyone has ever seen a documentary that is unbiased.”
• “Hot Coffee,” a documentary arguing that tort reform — the legal movement to rein in runaway damages in personal-injury cases is a corporate plot against ordinary Americans — caused a sensation when it aired on HBO earlier this year. It presented the weepy tales of several just-plain-folks allegedly trampled by fascist corporations. One of the most moving: a Houston woman named Jamie Leigh Jones, who claimed she was drugged, beaten and raped by a group of co-workers while working for the defense contractor KBR in Iraq.
Jones sued KBR for $145 million, accusing the company of negligence and a hostile work environment. A few weeks after “Hot Coffee” made its TV debut, her lawsuit went to trial — and jurors promptly rejected it. Trial testimony showed that doctors who examined Jones found no evidence of a beating or a rape and no trace of drugs in her body. She also had a history of blackouts while drinking as well as unproven accusations of assault and sexual harassment.
Curiously, not a word of Jones’ background appeared in “Hot Coffee.” Neither was there a single mention of the background of the film’s director, Susan Saladoff, a former medical malpractice attorney and longtime anti-tort-reform activist. Is it cynical to suggest there’s a connection between those two omissions?
• Here’s what the New York Times had to say about “Crude,” a documentary about a crusading lawyer named Steven Donziger who is pressing a $27 billion lawsuit accusing Chevron of responsibility for oil spills in the Ecuadorean jungle: “A thorough and impassioned new documentary ... intelligently and artfully made.”
Here’s what the New York Times didn’t say: “Crude” was conceived, funded, promoted and in large part directed and edited by Donziger and his pals. The film’s real story emerged after a Chevron lawyer noted that the version of “Crude” available on Netflix had a scene not included on the DVD — a scene of startling legal misconduct, in which one of the Ecuadorean court’s supposedly neutral experts held a secret planning session with Donziger’s legal and technical team.
Chevron promptly went to court to force “Crude” director Joe Berlinger to turn over so-called outtakes — 500 hours of raw footage from which the film was put together — as well as production documents. The latter show that Donziger asked Berlinger to make the movie, got him money from some of the same people who were financing the lawsuit, and sent a steady stream of emails telling the director how the film should be shot and edited.
No wonder! The outtakes make it clear that Donziger has only contempt for legal niceties, especially those of the Ecuadorean court where his suit is filed. In one clip, Donziger and his pals discuss how a court-appointed expert could exaggerate the damages against Chevron — while the expert sits right there in the room with them. In another, they chat about sending “an army” of demonstrators into the streets to make it clear what will happen to the judge if he rules against them.
Evidence? We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence, Donziger says, dismissing scientific studies as “all for the court, just a bunch of smoke and mirrors and bull(bleep).” His real strategy: “You can say whatever you want and at the end of the day, there’s a thousand people around the courthouse, you’re going to get what you want.”
Smile, Steve. You’re on Candid Camera.
• Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via email at ggarvinmiamiherald.com.