Potentially Big Trouble for Documentary Filmmakers

Posted on by Larry

We were deeply troubled to read this week in the LA Times of significant legal challenges to the First Amendment rights of a documentary filmmaker.

Joe Berlinger made a documentary about Aguinda v. Chevron, a class action lawsuit filed in 1993 against Chevron’s oil operation in Ecuador. Chevron is demanding all Joe’s outtakes — more than 600 hours of video material — as part of their legal defense. Is this an issue of First Amendment rights, trying to uncover the truth, or a large corporations acting as a bully? One judge in a lower court has already ruled in favor of Chevron requiring Berlinger to surrender his footage. On Wednesday, July 14, U.S. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments. And the impact for filmmakers could not be more significant.

This case raises issues of: Who is a journalist? What constitutes free speech in documentary filmmaking? What rights, if any, does a corporation have to media shot by someone that is not a corporate employee.

This week’s Digital Production Buzz featured Jonathan Handel, Of Counsel, Troy/Gould, talking about the First Amendment implications and ramifications of Chevron Oil’s case against documentary filmmaker, Joe Berlinger.

This is an interview that everyone interested in documentary film production needs to hear. Because if the wrong side wins, the effect could be chilling.

It took the Appeals Court exactly a day to reach a preliminary decision. Listen to learn more.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Click here to listen to the entire program.

Click here to read the original LA Times article.

And click here to read the followup article on the Court’s ruling.

Please tell your friends about this interview – because the results affect all of us.



P.S. Click here to learn more about the Digital Production Buzz.

2 Responses to Potentially Big Trouble for Documentary Filmmakers

  1. Mark Jacobs says:

    Larry, I hate to say this but will having been a journalist for over 25 years and now a documentary film maker of over 10 years. If you don’t have the experience or education to back up your credit as a “journalist” you will have a much tougher time fighting against these types of cases. I have so much respect for Joe and all that he’s brought to documentary film making. However, he’s worked in the scripted world much more than unscripted documentaries. That may be the ammunition that the Chevron attorneys used against him in the lawsuit? Just a thought with the utmost respect for Joe and every documentary film maker out there.

    • Larry says:


      You may be right. On the other hand, even the most experienced independent filmmaker does not begin to touch the deep pockets of a major corporation. Simply the chilling effect of the potential for lawsuits alters the playing field in the corporation’s favor. These are not happy times for journalists without major financial resources.


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