The International Documentary Association and dozens of big-name filmmakers have sprung to the defense of "Crude" director Joe Berlinger.
Last week, Berlinger was ordered by a New York federal court to turn over raw footage from his 2009 documentary to the oil company Chevron. The directors sent a letter of support on Wednesday urging the Second Circuit Court to overturn Judge Lewis A. Kaplan’s ruling.
Among the signatories are over 20 Academy winners and such notable directors as Bill Moyers, Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11"), Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side"), Ken Burns ("The Civil War") and Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth").
"At the heart of journalism lies the trust between the interviewer and his or her subject," the letter reads. "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."
"Crude" documents the fight over a $27 billion environmental lawsuit filed by the residents of the Amazon Rainforest against Chevron. In the civil suit, the natives argue that they should be compensated for oil and toxic waste contamination left over from when Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001, operated oil fields in Ecuador.
"Chevron" plans to use the unreleased footage to show that the plaintiffs’ lawyers engaged in various forms of misconduct.
Berlinger told TheWrap last week that he plans to appeal the court’s decision.
"I am deeply humbled and inspired by the level of support that my fellow documentarians have shown me over the past few weeks, and am grateful for the tremendous outpouring of support from people in all walks of life who feel that there is something deeply wrong here that needs to be addressed," Berlinger said.
"It’s not easy to take on this kind of challenge, but knowing there are a lot of people out there who have my back has made it clear to me that appealing this is the only choice."
Though the filmmakers acknowledged in the letter that First Amendment protections were not so strong that Berlinger might have to be forced to turn over some film to comply with Chevron’s subpoena, they objected to the director being forced to give the oil company access to all of the 600 hours of footage he shot.
"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," the group wrote. "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."
Further the group calls for instituting federal shield laws, which would give reporters the rights to refuse to testify about sources or information obtained while gathering news.
"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," the filmmakers wrote in conclusion.