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A filmmaker’s journey behind the scenes of Big Oil

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An armed militant in the Niger Delta appears in a scene from “Big Men.” Nigeria’s oil wealth hasn’t reduced the country’s poverty, leading to violence and unrest. Ghana is trying to avoid a similar outcome. Photo: Jonathan Furmanski An armed militant in the Niger Delta appears in a scene from “Big Men.” Nigeria’s oil wealth hasn’t reduced the country’s poverty, leading to violence and unrest. Ghana is trying to avoid a similar outcome. Photo: Jonathan Furmanski

The new film Big Men gives us “a peek behind doors that have never been opened to a camera before.”

Alex Blair is a press officer for Oxfam America covering oil, gas, and mining issues. He is based in Washington, DC.

What’s it like to film a gripping documentary about oil, greed, and poverty? To find out, I spoke with filmmaker Rachel Boynton, director of Big Men. The film, which opens today, follows Dallas-based Kosmos Energy as they try to develop a huge oil discovery offshore Ghana. It also looks at nearby Nigeria, which has seen years of conflict and few benefits from its oil wealth. Along the way, the film features Ghanaian politicians, masked rebels in Nigeria, Texas wildcatters and Wall Street investors, all of whom are interested in the impacts of oil. It’s a topic especially of interest to us, since Oxfam America has been working in Ghana to help local partners ensure revenues from oil and gas benefit the country’s people, and to prevent corruption and wasteful spending.

Alex Blair: How did you choose the story for Big Men?

Rachel Boynton: At the time that I started – back in 2006 – oil prices were going through the roof, and oil was mentioned every five minutes on the news. And it seemed like a good world to explore for a dramatic story. Then I learned about the situation in Nigeria, where militant groups were kidnapping oil workers and blowing up pipelines, and I figured there had to be a documentary to be made there. So I bought a plane ticket to Lagos and started looking for the film.

What was it like making this film?

Filming in Nigeria is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The problems were legion – from ridiculously spotty cell phone reception to unreliable electricity, to the fear of being arrested and deported. It was nerve-wracking. … And of course getting access to everybody – particularly because in the beginning I knew no one in the oil business and no one in Africa – was very difficult. The militants don’t usually allow women in their camps. And oil companies are not generally enthusiastic about inviting in an independent film crew. But it is this access to the inaccessible that makes the film special. In scene after scene, it allows you to peek behind doors that have never been opened to a camera before. And the basic voyeurism of it is really exciting.

What do you hope the impact of this film will be?

For me the philosophy of maximum profit is the most important of our time. It’s part of the fabric of the way we live. The tagline of the movie is “Everyone Wants to Be Big,” and I think the film is a fantastic illustration of this.

The pursuit of maximum profit simultaneously connects us and divides us. But we don’t often stop to think of it as something we are choosing to value. We’re so deeply entrenched in it, we don’t even see it as a choice. And we don’t often contemplate the complicated repercussions of structuring society this way. So I would love it if people left the theater thinking about this and about what connects them to all the people in the film. And I hope the film takes them on a really exciting ride in the process.

What do you see for the future of oil in Ghana?

I’m cautiously hopeful. Certainly a lot of people in Ghana are trying to do the right thing for the country. And they’re asking for advice from all the right people. The press and civil society in Ghana are very vibrant – they are constantly questioning their leaders in a really productive way. But the specter of corruption is real.

Ghana recently created something called the Public Interest and Accountability Committee. They’re supposed to monitor government and company compliance with the petroleum laws and give the public an independent analysis on the use of revenues.  Now the committee is woefully under-funded; the government isn’t giving them the support they need. But they’ve still managed to publish several reports on what is happening with the oil money so far. (You can download the reports at http://piacghana.org/ ) That kind of transparency gives me hope. But some of the contents of the reports give me pause. For example, for the past two years the government of Ghana has been massively over-estimating how much revenue they’re going to get from the oil. (They projected that they would make about $833 million from the oil in 2011. In reality, they got $444 million.) This is because the government keeps projecting huge amounts of income from corporate taxes, but the oil companies aren’t required to pay taxes until they’ve recouped their costs. (For 2011, Ghana projected the country would get a little more than $400 million in taxes. They ended up getting $0.) Because of this, too much money can be spent up front and not enough is put into the funds that were created for investing and saving for Ghana’s future.

I think we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Certainly there are countries – like Norway – that seem to get it right, where they use oil revenues in a way that benefits the majority of people. So my fingers are crossed.

Find tickets to see Big Men in your city.

 

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