WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Is oil giant Chevron afraid of a movie?
One of the stars of "Crude," a documentary about a $27 billion environmental lawsuit filed against the company on behalf of residents of Ecuador's Amazon, certainly thinks so. A spokesman for Chevron vehemently denies it.
The film's New York opening on Wednesday is the latest twist in a class action case that began 16 years ago, which argues that Chevron should compensate some 30,000 Ecuadoreans who live near waste pits left by oil exploration going back to the 1960s.
"Crude" shows villagers living by oil-slicked streams, washing clothes in contaminated water. One scene shows a newborn with head-to-toe skin rashes; others offer interviews with Ecuadoreans who contend those who use the water or live near it are prone to cancer, birth defects and other ailments.
The film is absorbing, in large part due to one of the personalities with the most screen time: Trudie Styler, who with her husband Sting founded the Rainforest Foundation.
Styler visited the affected area in Ecuador and her group donated rain-collection barrels so villagers can have clean water. She praised the film for its environmental message and vividly recalled the stench in the area.
"Before you're smelling things, your eyes start to prick and to have a burning sensation and the closer you get to ... these contaminated areas where people are being forced to live, your nostrils fill up ... your saliva gets the taste of petroleum in it as well ... and then 20 minutes later you're getting this horrible headache," Styler told Reuters.
Chevron denies responsibility for the contamination and stepped up a media campaign last week, offering videotapes that the company said show the Ecuadorean judge in the case was involved in a bribery scheme.
The judge recused himself from the case but said he did nothing wrong, and the Washington D.C.-based Amazon Defense Coalition that supports the plaintiffs said the video shows the judge resisted attempts to bribe him.
Steve Donziger, a U.S.-based consulting plaintiffs' attorney, questioned the timing of Chevron's latest campaign.
"I think the timing of the release of these videotapes -- which they've had, by their own admission, for months -- is directly related to the release of a film that they're scared about and they're hoping people don't go see," Donziger said in a telephone interview.
Kent Robertson, a spokesman for Chevron based in San Ramon, California, said the video was released last week because the company needed time to authenticate it, not because of the film's opening.
"The film is long on emotion and short on facts," Robertson said by telephone.
He said there was no documented proof of a link between oil-related pollution in the Ecuadorean jungle and diseases suffered by the plaintiffs and said rulings by the judge who recused himself should be annulled.
As for the petroleum Styler described in the area, Robertson said, "If you're seeing fresh oil today ... how can that be the responsibility of a company that stopped operating in 1990?"
The plaintiffs allege that Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, dumped billions of gallons of polluted water in the jungle for more than two decades before the company left Ecuador in the early 1990s.
Editing by Sandra Maler