Documentarian Rachel Boynton (Our Brand Is Crisis) spent seven years filming “Big Men,” a documentary about what happens when the American oil business meets a previously unknown oil reserve in Ghana. Is it possible for American business, with its obligations to generate returns for shareholders, to develop operations in a poor country without leading to corruption and abuse? Boynton takes an even-handed approach, showing us the story — and the conflicts — as they develop.
The film’s central story follows a small group of American explorers at Dallas-based oil company Kosmos Energy. Between 2007 and 2011, with unprecedented, independent access, Big Men’s two-person crew filmed inside the oil company as Kosmos and its partners discovered and developed the first commercial oil field in Ghana’s history.
Simultaneously the crew filmed in the swamps of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, following the exploits of a militant gang to reveal another side of the economy of oil: people trying to profit in any way possible, because they’ve given up on waiting for the money to trickle down.
So what happens when a group of hungry people discover a massive and exquisitely rare pot of gold in one of the poorest places on earth?
Scott Foundas wrote in “Variety”
“Like a number of recent hot-button docus, from ‘Crude’ to ‘Inside Job,’ Rachel Boynton’s extraordinary ‘Big Men’ should come tagged with a warning: The side effects of global capitalism may include dizziness, nausea and seething outrage. Using razor-sharp journalistic skill to untangle the knotty saga of an American petroleum company’s entrance into the West African republic of Ghana, Boynton’s film also poses a series of troubling philosophical questions: Is unchecked greed an intrinsic part of the human character? Is ‘the greater good’ ever more than a convenient euphemism where big business and big government are concerned? Wide fest exposure and ancillary sales seem assured for this Tribeca world premiere, which also richly deserves a theatrical pickup.”
Boynton talked to me about making the film and the challenges of telling a complicated story.
As is said by several different people over the course of the movie, we all are human beings with the same impulses. So why is it that there are such different outcomes?
Well, in Ghana we don’t know what the outcome is going to be, right? That was sort of one of the conundrums of the film. I knew that watching the film anyone would want to know, are the people in Ghana are going to benefit from this? And I was never going to be able to stick around for twenty years to find out. I needed a way to contemplate that question, if not to find an answer at least to give them another question.
You show a representative from Norway who provides a counterexample, a very credible, fair system in which all of the citizens of the country share in the benefits from the oil extraction. And then you show Nigeria as another option, where corruption has been a terrible problem. What makes the difference?
Norway is a pretty homogeneous society, you know, a lot of unity there. There are 250 different languages spoken in Nigeria, not to mention the dialect. So you’re in one town and you go five km down the road and they don’t speak the same language. And it’s literally like the tower of Babel, very difficult for people to communicate with each other let alone come to some kind of consensus as a nation. And I think that kind of diversity is both of something of beauty and strength and at the same time something that is incredibly difficult to overcome when you’re trying to come to some sort of national unifying consensus. Or if you are trying to have leaders, this notion of everyone looking out for themselves is something that unifies everyone in the movie. And there’s a line in the film from someone who works for the Ghanaian national Petroleum company on the board and he says that he doesn’t believe that self interest is an intrinsic part of human nature, that what unites us needs to be greater than what divides us. And I love that sentiment, I love the idea but it’s much more difficult to achieve than it is to say and it’s much harder to achieve in a place as diverse as Nigeria.
How did you become interested in this story?
I made Our Brand Is Crisis and it was very well received on the festival circuit. It did well for itself and I was very pleased and excited about how it was done. It was my first film as a director and I felt kind of empowered coming out of that film to do something more ambitious. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to do something really epic and big and difficult. And at the time oil was all over the news. I’d turn on CNN and literally every five minutes there would be a segment about the price of oil and fears over a hundred dollars a barrel. It was just on everyone’s lips and I thought, “This is interesting. Everyone’s talking about oil and yet I’m not seeing anything about this most important resource from inside the industry. Wouldn’t it be interesting to get in that industry?” I could do that and then I started fishing around. Where would I go first? What I was gonna do?
And as I was doing some research I discovered that the Gulf of Guinea off the Coast of West Africa was this region that the Bush Administration and all of the oil majors were paying enormous attention to as this new frontier for oil exploration. They were all talking about how there was a lot of underexplored territory there. And that new technology was allowing them to look for oil there. So I said, “Oh well, that’s kind of interesting, that could be an interesting place to go look at,” and then at the same time I was really thinking about this militancy popping up in Nigeria and all these stories about militants attacking pipelines and kidnapping oil workers started appearing in the news. And I said there has to be a movie there, that’s conflict, drama, and that equals movie, right? So I bought a plane ticket to Lagos and I went to Nigeria and that’s how I started.
My original idea was that I was going to get access to an American oil company operating in Nigeria and the whole thing was going to be set there. And I spent basically a year and a half traveling back and forth between Nigeria and America like a crazy person, sort of trying to find the movie, trying to get access to people, trying to get to know people so that I could guarantee our security, trying to get the right permissions to put together a movie, right? But I didn’t start by knowing exactly what the movie was.
So in 2007 I had written several emails to guys at Kosmos Energy. They had this reputation as being guys who could find oil where no one else could and they had all worked together at a company called Triton Energy in the early 90s to discover oil off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. So a lot of people were interested in what they were going to do next. They managed to raise a ton of money from [Wall Street private equity firm] Blackstone before they had drawn their first well as a company. And so I knew who they were and I filmed at this thing called the Offshore Technology Conference and I happen to find someone from Kosmos on a panel there talking about Nigerian oil. I asked him out to lunch, and I pitched him on the idea of making a film. When I first filmed with them at the Offshore Technology Conference, that was in April, May of 2007, just after that they drilled their first well as a company in June, July 2007. And with that well they discovered the Jubilee field [in Ghana] and I basically said, “You know there’s a potentially great film here and it would be great to do something about you guys,” and he said, “Why don’t you come and pitch the guys who started the company?” So I went to Dallas and I did a PowerPoint presentation. And it was a really lame PowerPoint presentation but they said yes to me and that’s how I got access to the company.
The film has a pointed contrast between between what the Wall Street guy said about reputation and how important reputation is and other participants, who in their own ways talk about how they are perceived. Even the masked gang who destroy the oil drilling equipment talk about being in the film because they want to be famous.
Yes, everyone talks about reputation.
Everyone is very, I guess I’d say, media-savvy. How do you as a filmmaker get past the way the people you are filming try to spin you?
I’ve made two movies now about people who don’t exactly wear their heart. I would say the people in my last film were much more conscious than the people in this film because that’s what they did for a living. These guys, when I did my little PowerPoint presentation, one of the things that was at the top of our PowerPoint presentation was something like, “movies are good for your reputation” and we all know that. It’s about wanting to be big and so of course one of the reasons why they are talking to me is that they want to be big and being big is two things; It’s having a lot of money and it’s having a big reputation, a good positive big reputation. And certainly being in a film is linked to that… Of course.
I don’t feel like I had the wool pulled over my eyes as a filmmaker.
I think anyone talking… Me talking to you okay; listen, I’m not going to tell you my deep dark secrets that I don’t want anyone to know. I’m not going to tell you that because I don’t know you and you are going to publish the interview. There’s certain things that one just doesn’t do and I think that’s kind of human. And I think certainly, one of the things I believe is a filmmaker is that you have to be respectful of people’s limits. And, you have to understand that people are only going to go so far in what they are willing to reveal and you have to accept that about them and embrace that about them and work with what you have. And frequently I would say, nine times out of ten, people will give you more than they think they will because they feel comfortable and they feel not judged and when people are not being judged they are more willing to be open. And openness is what makes someone in a film interesting, in a documentary right? The capacity to get someone being open.
That interview with Jim in the film I think is a phenomenal interview. It’s just that one of the best interviews I’ve ever done in my life. An amazing interview! Because we just had each other. At the time we did that interview, we trusted each other. I didn’t film him and then show it to people the next day. He felt he could trust me. And he could trust me. I was trustworthy and so he trusted me. As a filmmaker, I am not interested really in “gotcha” filmmaking, like trying to do something behind someone’s back. I really don’t think I am naïve. And I don’t think the movie feels naïve. I saw this documentary about Nigeria once and the filmmaker says in the documentary; “I decided I just was going to come in and film whatever I saw.” And thought to myself, “what the heck are you talking about?! How can you possibly do that?! It’s Nigeria! Everyone’s lying to you! How in the world could you possibly be coming in and showing what you see?”
So, one of the reasons the film is so layered and incredibly dense and there is so much going on in this movie, is because the truth is incredibly complicated. And one of the ways of getting at that is to contrast and comparison. It’s not just through showing what one person says.
That opening of the wasp on the huge and deteriorating oil equipment is so striking. Tell me why you chose that as a way into the story?
Well, [cinematographer] Jonathan Furmanski and I talked about about insects. I was very interested in insects, I kept asking him to film insects. He knew I wanted him to film insects. That said, he found that image. Like, I was busy, I can’t remember what I was doing and he was getting shots; just beautiful shots at the well and things around the well. And he saw this little wasp’s nest being built underneath the oil, the ancient oil well and he got this great image. It’s my little “hats off to Darwin’” scenario I guess, a little bit. I’m very interested in the connections between things and I’m interested in this notion of self interest, and of building things and tearing things apart. And the wasps, for me it was really more about the feeling of the thing, the tone that it sets, that sort of smell of potential threat, the buzz in the background and the thing that strikes that’s got this thing around the end of it that’s going to watch out for itself, don’t step on it, building its nest under this well. For me, it was really about that tone because that’s the tone of the film.