Play de­picts full story of fraud in en­vi­ron­men­tal case vs. Chevron

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRIS­TIAN TOTO

Phe­lim McAleer, the Ir­ish doc­u­men­tary film­maker who chal­lenged Al Gore’s “Truth” on cli­mate change, has em­barked on a the­atri­cal work that has all the trap­pings of grand drama. Cor­rup­tion. Celebrity. And fraud. Lots of fraud.

Mr. McAleer’s new play, “The $18 Bil­lion Prize: The Dark Side of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Move­ment,” chron­i­cles the 1993 class-ac­tion law­suit against Chevron Corp. that ac­cused the oil gi­ant of vast pol­lu­tion of land and wa­ter­ways in ru­ral Ecuador. Af­ter eight years of le­gal wran­gling — first in a New York state court and then a fed­eral court — Chevron lost and was or­dered to pay $18 bil­lion to the com­plainants.

But that was just the be­gin­ning.

Mr. McAleer, the play­wright, re­lies on court tran­scripts and re­lated doc­u­ments, such as diaries

kept by at­tor­neys, to tell the full story. Roughly 80 per­cent of the di­a­logue in “The $18 Bil­lion Prize” is lifted di­rectly from those records and jour­nals.

“Real life is much more com­pelling than fic­tion,” the right-lean­ing provo­ca­teur told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “The au­di­ence pays a lot more at­ten­tion when they re­al­ize it’s verbatim, when you re­al­ize it’s the real per­son’s real world.”

He ap­plied the tenets of verbatim the­ater in his 2015 play, “Fer­gu­son,” in which ac­tors re­cited grand jury tes­ti­mony in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a white po­lice of­fi­cer’s fa­tal shoot­ing of an un­armed black teenager in a St. Louis sub­urb in 2014. Part of the cast quit the show just be­fore its de­but in New York City af­ter learn­ing of the play­wright’s po­lit­i­cal lean­ings. They feared the show wasn’t truth­ful to the events in ques­tion.

Mr. McAleer, who has been hailed as con­ser­va­tives’ an­swer to Michael Moore, brushes off the com­plaints and crit­i­cism.

“There doesn’t have to be any­thing to com­plain about. … They just shout, ‘Racist!’” he said.

In his work as a play­wright and as a doc­u­men­tar­ian, the con­trar­ian sto­ry­teller ex­udes a kind of com­fort in con­tro­versy, whether he courts it or whether it just fol­lows him.

Such was the case with his 2009 doc­u­men­tary, “Not Evil Just Wrong,” which he pro­duced and di­rected with his wife and long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor, Ann McEl­hin­ney. In it, the doubt­ful duo picked apart the themes of the for­mer vice pres­i­dent’s Os­car-win­ning 2006 doc­u­men­tary, “An In­con­ve­nient Truth,” not­ing that ev­i­dence of global warm­ing is in­con­clu­sive and ar­gu­ing that many en­vi­ron­men­tal laws have proved harm­ful to hu­mans.

Lib­eral scolds such as Mother Jones mag­a­zine as­sailed the McEl­hin­ney-McAleer film, but con­ser­va­tives ral­lied around it. Com­pet­i­tive En­ter­prise In­sti­tute Pres­i­dent Fred Smith de­clared, “We may at last be get­ting our Michael Moore.”

The pair also did bat­tle with Josh Fox, di­rec­tor of “Gasland,” a 2010 doc­u­men­tary that sav­aged the frack­ing in­dus­try. Ms. McEl­hin­ney and Mr. McAleer re­sponded with “Frack Na­tion,” a 2013 doc­u­men­tary chal­leng­ing Mr. Fox’s ar­gu­ments and ex­tolling the virtues of the en­ergy process. It en­raged lib­er­als and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. ThinkProgress.org said Mr. McAleer used the “Tobacco Play­book” to at­tack Mr. Fox when his “Gasland Part II” hit the­aters in 2014.

Though fond of doc­u­men­taries, Mr. McAleer said the play for­mat al­lows him to tell a story with­out the costs of a fea­ture film. The medium also brings with it a sense of sto­ry­telling grav­i­tas.

“Peo­ple re­spect plays. It’s a more in­ter­est­ing art form, and they’re an ex­cel­lent way to tell the truth,” he said.

“The $18 Bil­lion Prize” fo­cuses in­tently on what hap­pened af­ter Chevron lost the pol­lu­tion law­suit in 2001 and re­fused to pay.

New York lawyer Steven Donziger filed the law­suit on be­half of Ecuadore­ans im­pacted by en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, claim­ing Chevron was re­spon­si­ble in its part­ner­ship with a state-owned oil com­pany (now named Petroe­cuador).

In the wake of his vic­tory over the oil gi­ant, Mr. Donziger ap­peared in the 2009 doc­u­men­tary “Crude,” which cel­e­brated the ver­dict while pro­vid­ing de­tails about var­i­ous as­pects of the case.

Team Chevron spot­ted a re­veal­ing scene omit­ted from the the­atri­cal ver­sion of “Crude” but re­leased on­line. It showed Mr. Donziger col­lab­o­rat­ing with al­legedly neu­tral ex­perts in the case. Chevron suc­cess­fully de­manded to see more footage compiled by the movie’s di­rec­tor, Joe Ber­linger.

Soon, a large, sticky web of de­ceit emerged, in­clud­ing bribery and money laun­der­ing.

In 2014, a fed­eral court in New York found that Mr. Donziger com­mit­ted wit­ness tam­per­ing, money laun­der­ing, ex­tor­tion and wire fraud while at­tempt­ing to win his case. His at­tempt to re­vive the le­gal fight failed at the Supreme Court last year.

“He was brought down by his own hubris,” Mr. McAleer said of Mr. Donziger.

Mean­while, the diaries cited in this “Prize” of­fer some juicy tid­bits the­ater­go­ers will have to see for them­selves. The case at­tracted sev­eral high-pro­file celebri­ties, in­clud­ing Danny Glover, Mia Far­row and St­ing and his wife, Trudie Styler. The pop star and his wife ap­peared in “Crude.”

“Let’s just say St­ing and his wife will not be happy with this play,” said Mr. McAleer, sug­gest­ing that the pro­duc­tion will in­clude some sexual rev­e­la­tions from the diaries.

“The $18 Bil­lion Prize” is set to de­but Satur­day at San Francisco’s Phoenix The­ater and run through June 3.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

PLAY­WRIGHT: Phe­lim McAleer used diaries and doc­u­ments to tell “The $18 Bil­lion Prize.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

New York lawyer Steven Donziger filed a law­suit on be­half of Ecuadore­ans im­pacted by en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, claim­ing Chevron was re­spon­si­ble in its part­ner­ship with a state-owned oil com­pany.

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