In the aftermath of a judge's ruling that may force filmmaker Joe Berlinger to hand over the outtakes from CRUDE to energy giant Chevron, nearly 200 top documentary filmmakers have signed "an open letter of support", protesting the breadth of the decision by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan to allow Chevron to subpeona all of Berlinger's raw footage.
Noting that "it is understood that First Amendment protection of the journalist's privilege is never absolute", the letter goes on to note that "(t)ypically, if such privilege is successfully rebutted in court, a turn-over order demanding a document or other thing is issued..."
"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...
At the heart of journalism lies the trust between the interviewer and his or her subject. Individuals who agree to be interviewed by the news media are often putting themselves at great risk, especially in the case of television news and documentary film where the subject's identity and voice are presented in the final report. 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."
Spearheaded by filmmaker Patrick Creadon and editor Doug Blush (who worked together on WORDPLAY and I.O.U.S.A.), the letter has been signed by a veritable who's who of the documentary community, including at least 20 Oscar winners (among them: Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Rob Epstein, Barbara Kopple, Peter Davis, Davis Guggenheim, Freida Lee Mock, James Marsh, Louie Psihoyos, Ross Kauffman, Kevin Macdonald, Jessica Yu, Cynthia Wade, Mark Harris, Steven Okazaki and Leon Gast), and even more Oscar nominees (including DA Pennebaker, Morgan Spurlock, Laura Poitras, Kirby Dick, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Jeff Blitz, James Longley, Tia Lessin, Carl Deal, Ellen Kuras, Robert Kenner, Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar, Scott Kennedy, Hupert Sauper, Liz Garbus and Amy Berg) as well as dozens of the community's top filmmakers (Kim Longinotto, Jehane Noujaim, Chris Hegedus, R.J. Cutler, Nick Broomfield, Haskell Wexler, Steve James, Peter Gilbert, Ken Burns, Lucy Walker, Doug Pray and Amir Bar-Lev, among them).
[Full disclosure: I am also a signer on the letter.]
Work began on the letter on Saturday when Creadon reached out to a handful of filmmakers calling for a united community response in support of Berlinger. A first draft on the letter was completed Sunday, with the IDA joining the effort and working with Creadon and others to finesse the language regarding the case's complex legal issues. IDA President Eddie Schmidt took the letter to his Board of Directors, which decided to sign the letter en masse to make a statement on behalf of the organization.
"Advocacy is an area where an organization like IDA can make a difference - and we should try to lead as much as we can," Schmidt told me. "It seemed important to come out early and instrumentally, and luckily, we have a forward-thinking Board of Directors and an Executive Director who believe in making a stand."
Schmidt said that he was amazed at the support the letter garnered within the community in just a few short days. "Those names say it all: who can argue with the greatest cinematic arguers of our time?"
In an email exchange, Creadon wrote about his reaction to the news as it broke last Thursday:
"I read the story in the New York Times Saturday morning and was stunned when I realized Joe was likely going to have to turn over all of his footage. What many outside of our community do not realize is that of all the challenges facing documentary filmmakers, it's often the legal hurdles that prove to be most difficult. And of course legal difficulties usually lead to big legal bills -- a particularly acute kind of pain that doesn't just hurt the individual but can often hurt that person's family and livelihood."
And earlier today, Blush described the chain of events that unfolded after the judge's decision was announced:
"I've worked on several films with critical interview confidentiality issues, and when I first saw the story Thursday, I was profoundly shaken by its implications. Patrick called on Friday, and he was on fire. He proposed bringing together doc community filmmakers around a statement of support, and wrote a first draft. Since then, with many great suggestions and the incredible tidal wave of signatures, the statement is out there and Joe knows he's not alone in this. My gratitude goes out to Eddie, the IDA, and this amazing global group of artists, and I believe this can be a first step to amend and increase the vital legal protections for our work."
The full text of the letter after the jump.
Filmmakers and others in the documentary community are invited to add their names to this open letter in the comments section of this post.