The movie "Big Men" taps an oil gusher of broken promises

by Stella Dawson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 March 2014 04:41 GMT

A still photo of Nigerian militants from the movie "Big Men - Everyone Wants to be Big". Photo by Jonathan Furmanski.

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Rachel Boynton’s new documentary is a cautionary tale of what happens when a poor African country strikes gold and Wall Street financiers and Texas oilmen rush in. The danger is palpable.

Their eyes are empty pools. The two men say they dug a pit, sawed through the pipeline and set the oil on fire at night. Outside the dingy room, rising above the cluster of cement huts, the red dirt tracks and swamp of the Niger Delta, black clouds are billowing. Smoke from vandalised pipelines surround their village.

The two men look vacant. They say they were paid to cut the pipeline by a subcontractor whom the oil company will hire to repair it. It’s a way to earn a living, says one man. If you have nothing and shoot yourself in the foot, and someone pays you, at least you have something, says the other. 

It is a small scene in the documentary “Big Men - Everyone Wants to be Big”, but one that encapsulates how great badly-managed natural resource wealth can bring poverty and soul-destroying destruction. Using a spare visual style, filmmaker Rachel Boynton travels from desperate men in Nigeria tired of waiting for oil money to trickle down, to the high-powered world of African oil deals in Ghana’s capital Accra, on Wall Street and in Dallas. On the surface, she tells a twisting tale of global capitalism at work, greed and deception by tracking the five years from the discovery of oil in Ghana in 2007 by Kosmos Energy of Texas.

But what makes this story gripping is how the New York-based filmmaker goes beyond the tired polemics of Texas oilmen out for a quick buck exploiting poor African country.

Instead Boynton and her cameraman Jonathan Furmanski get inside the lives of the people touched by oil, questioning what motivates them, and as the camera lingers on her subjects, she listens carefully to search out deeper truths. By cutting back and forth between gun-toting oil pirates in the Niger creeks, the big Texan prospector who struck black gold in the Gulf of Guinea, the coldly calculating Wall Street financier, and the Ghanaians desperate for an oil bonanza, she weaves a subtler and richer tale.

Yes, the universal motivator of greed is at play – the financiers stand to rake in $2.2 billion in profits. Yes, the stink of corruption permeates contract negotiations for Ghana’s Jubilee field, eventually costing three of the film’s Big Men their jobs – a chief executive, the middle man and a president. Yes, the movie pulls back the curtain on global capitalism and its victims.

But what unites these characters is something more profound. Boynton touches on the human desire to Mean Something. She explores great hopes, frustrated dreams, a desire for recognition, the search for personal profit, the fight to survive and the tribal drive to look after one’s own – be it family, friends, party or corporate shareholders. Only the scale is different.

Boynton, who has won acclaim for her 2005 documentary “Our Brand is Crisis”, said she wanted to make a movie about oil and conflict, so she bought a ticket to Nigeria, according to publicity material released at a preview in Washington last week. Over six months and seven trips to Nigeria, she eventually was introduced through a state commissioner to Tom Polo, the godfather of Niger Delta militants who gave permission for a woman to enter their riverine camps.

The danger is palpable. Masked men carry automatic rifles held together with duct tape. Garlands of bullets are strung across their chests. The so-called Rebel Underdogs smoke, drink whiskey, dance and shout, fire off rounds and then leap into speed boats to hijack an oil barge.  Asked why he agreed to be filmed, Rebel Underdog Emi Tiemo extends a big smile across his masked face. He wants to be famous, recognised on the streets, and he wants a better life for his child, he says. Cut to the floating wood hut villages, rusting oil pipes, smoke billowing from severed lines, stolen barrels of semi-processed highly flammable oil strapped to mopeds, piles of trash and flies.    

Back in the United States, Boynton began filming James Musselman, chief executive of Kosmos Energy, a Dallas-based company known for finding oil where others have failed.  Kosmos strikes big. The offshore Jubilee Field in Ghana discovered in 2007 promises to produce 8 billion barrels of oil, or revenues of $800,000 a day.

Boynton tags along as Musselman attends a colourful ceremony with a tribal king in Ghana. She visits his ranch in Texas, travels in his corporate jet, eavesdrops on contract talks and captures the thrill of the deal. In the glassy towers of Wall Street, however, Kosmos chairman Jeffrey Harris delivers a chilly message of profits, while in Accra, then-Ghanian President John Agyekum Kufuor is talking of oil wealth for the people.

Juxtaposed against these hopes are the failures of Nigeria, the sixth largest oil producer in the world. Its wealth gap has widened and poverty deepened since the discovery of oil in the 1950s, and male unemployment today tops 50 percent. All too quickly cynicism, suspicion and confusion is spreading in Ghana, too. A newly elected government tries to cancel the Kosmos contract. The U.S. Justice Department investigates alleged corruption at Kosmos. George Owusu, the middleman who brokered Kosmos’ entry into Ghana, is ousted from his firm EO Group, accused of self dealing. Musselman is ousted from Kosmos for failure to deliver on time.

All the while, a bright yellow and red oil rig rises from the waters of the Gulf of Guinea. It grows bigger and bigger, a high technology masterpiece and a giant cash machine tapping into the wealth beneath the deep blue sea.

Whether Ghana gets it right - and its new-found wealth benefits a wide swath of its citizenry - is too early to tell. But as oil and gas discoveries spur fresh excitement in East Africa, “Big Men” is a cautionary tale of money, power and influence that is difficult to control. It is a movie well worth watching.

“Big Men” opens in New York City on March 14, and then in other U.S. cities.

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