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Oil and Greed: An Interview With Big Men Director Rachel Boynton Oil and Greed: An Interview With Big Men Director Rachel Boynton

Oil and Greed: An Interview With Big Men Director Rachel Boynton

by Tosten Burks
April 16, 2014

Rachel Boynton never meant to make a film in Ghana. When the documentary filmmaker started making trips to Africa, her flights landed in Lagos. She wanted to investigate why underserved Nigerian citizens were resorting to militant attacks on federally maintained pipelines to demand more of the country's oil revenue be spent on its people. But when upstart Texas oil company Kosmos Energy discovered the first major oil field off the coast of Ghana, and invited Boynton along to film their negotiations with the country's government, it set in motion the story that forms the backbone of Big Men -- a scathing, intimate look at the cross-cultural clash and universal greed that infects the world's most valuable resource.

The film is a triumph of access that goes behind the closed doors of an SEC investigation, deep into the swamps with Niger Delta militants, and on the campaign trail during Ghana's 2008 presidential election. On the front lines of a billion dollar industry, Boynton tells the brittle and complex human stories at each level of the chain, from impoverished natives to the private equity firms bankrolling it all.

Big Men is screening through May in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and Lincoln. GOOD spoke with Boynton about what it means to be a "Big Man," the role of a documentarian, and what lies ahead for Ghana's future as it tries to resist the resource curse.

How did you first become interested in the West African oil business?

Well, I wasn't interested in the West African oil business. I started because, back when I finished my last film, I made this film called Our Brand is Crisis, which was about a group of American political consultants, including James Carville, who went to Bolivia and ran a presidential campaign. So I finished that film in 2005, and it had its theatrical release in 2006. That was when I started thinking about my next film and where I wanted to focus my efforts.

At the time, the price of oil was in the news literally every 30 seconds. You turned on the radio, you turned on CNN, it was everywhere. Everyone was panicking about peak oil and the prices were going through the roof and I thought to myself, I'm seeing a lot about this subject matter, but I'm not seeing anything from inside the business of it. And I'm always really interested, when it comes to filmmaking, and especially with vérité, at looking at perspectives that I'm not seeing. Plus, I'm pretty good at getting access to things.

So I thought to myself, well, I can do that. I can make a film from inside the oil business. And wouldn't that be kind of amazing? I'd never seen it before. That's where it really started. It really started, initially, just wanting to get inside and look at the business from within.

How aware were you of the inequality in Nigeria at the time?

I think anyone who reads anything about Nigeria is pretty aware of the inequality. It's hard not to be aware of it. Basically what happened was, I started doing some research. And at the time there was an enormous amount of emphasis, particularly from the Bush administration, being put on the search for new sources of oil from off the coast of West Africa. There's still quite a bit of activity going on there. It's considered this new frontier for oil companies because it's considered underexplored, particularly the undersea, the underwater areas. So I thought that could be an interesting place to look.

Then, in late 2005, early 2006, this militancy in Nigeria started popping up in the news, and groups of militants were attacking pipelines and causing worldwide oil prices to skyrocket. They were kidnapping oil workers and demanding more benefits from everything. So that sort of answers your question, which is to say that the entire thing was framed in that inequality.

I thought that could be really interesting. There's something happening there. Why don't I go to Nigeria and try to find a story? Originally, I thought I was going to make the whole film in Nigeria. I started by buying a plane ticket to Lagos. And I didn't know anyone in the oil business. I didn't know anyone on the continent of Africa, but I went anyways. I had a few phone numbers in my pocket from people who knew people, like my husband's business partner, her brother had gone to boarding school with a Nigerian guy. So I had his number. You know, really random phone numbers that had nothing to do with the oil business.

But that's where I began. I started with this idea that, you know, sort of this six degrees of separation, that you can get to anybody if you figure out how everyone's connected. And with this story, everyone really is connected. I mean, the militants are connected to the government and the government is connected, obviously, to the companies. Everyone is connected to everybody else.

What were those early months in Nigeria like? How did you approach breaking into the story?

Well, on the first trip, it was really mostly about getting over my fear of Lagos. By the way, I really like Lagos -- it's kind of an amazing city. It's a complicated city, but I learned a lot there. I started by calling the four phone numbers that I had, meeting those people, and asking them if they knew anybody who might help me. And every time I spoke with somebody, I asked them if they had any ideas. And then I called those people [that they recommended] and I cast a really, really wide net. It took me a year and a half of traveling back and forth between the Niger Delta and Lagos and New York City, where I live. I mean, I think I spent more time in Nigeria that first year than I did in America. I spent a lot of time there. I hit the pavement and tried to meet as many people as I could.

How did you first build the relationship with Kosmos?

Kosmos came in later. Like I said, when I first started, the original concept was that I was going to do it all in Nigeria. I read about Kosmos. At the time, in late 2006, I went to Lagos for the first time in August of 2006. And at the time, Kosmos existed and they were buying up exploration rights offshore in different countries. But they were not yet active. They hadn't yet drilled their first well. So I had read about them, because I was doing my research on the area.

People were really interested in what they were doing because the guy who started that company had a really good reputation as someone who could find oil in places where other people hadn't. They had all worked together at a company called Triton Energy in the late 90s, and at Triton they had been the people who had first discovered oil off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. So, you know, people when they saw that the Kosmos guys were interested in something, others became interested. There was a lot of talk about them.

I had reached out to Brian Maxted, who was the number two guy there, very early on in my research. And he didn't respond to me. I didn't hear back. I tried a couple times and had no luck. And then I filmed a panel discussion about Nigeria in 2007 in Houston that Brian was on. It was my very first shoot. After I filmed him on this panel, he signed a release form and I got his information and told him who I was, and he started returning my emails. We ultimately went out to lunch in Houston several months later, and I sort of pitched him on what I wanted to do. He said, well, I believe you, why don't you come pitch to the guys who started the company.

I went to Kosmos and did a really lame PowerPoint presentation. I gave them three options of things that they could do. Just let me shoot anything on an oil rig, because I was having a lot of trouble getting onto an oil rig. That was number one. Number two was, let me follow you in Nigeria, because I know they were interested in that area. Now, by the time I actually pitched them as a group, they had just drilled their first well, and with that well they had discovered this massive new oil field off the coast of Ghana. So option number 3 was, guys, you just made this huge discovery off the coast of Ghana, I think there's a good story here. And they ultimately went for option number 3.

So when that happened, my whole conception for the film changed and it became a much larger thing. The scope of the film broadened. It really became more of a film about human nature, than about a particular place. To me, this is a film fundamentally about human nature and capitalism. I never really approached it as a film about oil or a film about Africa. I really did approach it as a film about human nature. And that's sort of what led me to the "Big Man" thing.

Was greed a theme you were interested in prior to this story, or was that a conclusion that rose from the reporting?

When you go to Nigeria particularly -- and this is true in Ghana too, but it's really true in Nigeria -- and every time I've shown this film to audiences and done Q&As, when they're Nigerians in the audience, I always ask them about this, and they all sort of nod their heads. But, basically, this concept of the "big man" is just something you hear everyday, all the time, wherever you go. It's a common phrase. You go to the lobby of a hotel and you need help finding a restaurant, and someone says, "Go talk to the big man." It's a very, very common phrase. And it's used in reference to somebody who's in charge. It's used to refer to somebody who has a good reputation. But it's always a guy, it's the guy on top. The guy in charge. The guy with the power. And everybody wants to big. And people talk about wanting to be big.

I became very fascinated with that idea. To me, that desire to be big, it's something that very much drives society where I live. I live in New York. New York's all about people wanting to be big, and their ambition, their drive. But in Nigeria, they actually talk about it. They label it in a very clear way. To me, that was just documentary gold. To have this impulse that is such a driving force in their world, and in my world, spoken about in such clear language. It allows you to look at it in a way that's much more on the surface than it is here. Even though, of course, it's here in spades. So that's how I became interested in it -- in this incredibly common phrase that I think is indicative of a really deep impulse that basically rules our entire society.

And that's what I mean when I say I never really thought about this as a film about Ghana or a film about Nigeria. For me, it was a film about people and their impulses and what's driving them. And how these driving forces are both uniting them and dividing them. There's a line in the film towards the very end that I think is one of the more important lines in the whole film. This guy who's on the board of the GNPC says, "What unites us has to be greater than what divides us." To me, that's sort of the ultimate question, right? How does that work? How do you make that happen?

So I really wanted the film to function -- and I think it does, and it's something that I'm really proud of -- as a really good story about people and what happens to them. As much as it is a story about these larger natural resource questions, or questions specifically about Nigeria and Ghana. It needed to work on all those levels, both on a grand scale and on a mini scale.

Did you ever struggle to reserve judgment on characters? For example, when Kosmos gave the village $10,000 for schools, was that uncomfortable?

First of all, that's very normal. A lot of people see it as like, oh my God, the bribery. But people who haven't spent time in West Africa don't know that anytime you go to a village, or anytime you meet any kind of...First of all, anytime you go to a village, you have to meet the chief. And, generally speaking, you're supposed to bring them a gift. That's what you do.

And the Ashanti king is the head honcho king of Ghana. He's an incredibly important political figure. So it's sort of considered culturally acceptable and expected that when you go and visit him, you bring him a gift. But, of course, I think that scene is indicative of a real cultural difference. The way things are done in various places is very different.

In terms of reserving judgment, I think part of the reason people let me film them is because I'm not really a judgmental person. If I approach somebody, and I say, "I wanna film you," it's because I'm sincerely interested in what they have to say. My theory about people is that they know their own stories from their own perspectives. And just because I don't necessarily share somebody's perspective doesn't mean I don't have something to learn from their perspective. It doesn't make their perspective invalid. It might make our opinions different, it might make our politics different, but it doesn't mean that they're wrong and not worth listening to, or inherently somehow evil.

I just never approached anyone in the film that way, not the oil companies, not the governments, not the militants. I approached everyone with the idea that they had something to share and something to say. And I wanted to look into what that was.

Were there times where it was harder to preserve access to characters as the story developed? How did you navigate that?

Of course. Kosmos was under investigation. They had the FBI knocking on their door. There were serious problems going on. And they were simultaneously trying to sell their company for a few billion dollars. So yeah, in those moments, access becomes strained and oil companies are not exactly inclined to allow independent filmmakers to openly run around when things are that tense.

That said, the job of a documentary filmmaker, in this situation, is to be realistic and simultaneously pushy. You recognize that you're not going to get this scene with Exxon Mobile talking about deal terms. Exxon's not going to let me film that scene. That said, that doesn't mean that I can't get the head of Kosmos's board of directors to talk about Exxon. My attitude is always to just talk very openly with people about what their limits are and what they can do and what they can't do. And to try to be respectful of those limits. Because, otherwise, you won't get any access.

If you stay with any story long enough, there are always going to be moments of tension. Whatever the story is. It just so happens that this film is about the most important resource on the planet. We're talking about billions and billions of dollars and governments and massive companies. Isn't Exxon the largest company in the world? So they're pretty hefty players.

In that context, the fact that the film exists, to me, is extraordinary. I think it's kind of amazing to be behind the scenes during the FCPA investigation. It's kind of crazy. To be walking around the offices with a camera. The way that happens is by being respectful of people's limits.

Did you have any favorite characters in the story?

I have to say, I met so many people over the course of making the film. There are hundreds and hundreds of hours in the movie. It took me years of traveling back and forth before I got the access and got the permissions that were really necessary to keep us safe. By the way, my camera man and I, we might have been the only foreign documentary crew to not get arrested and deported while we were filming there. There were multiple crews that were arrested and deported. It was a difficult moment to be filming in the Niger Delta. That said, I can't say I have a favorite person in the movie. But certainly, I met so many people over the course of making this film who really changed the way I see the world, and my own understanding of my place in it. I'm very grateful for that.

What do you see in Ghana's future? Do you have hope for their ability to capitalize on their resources effectively and fairly?

I think Ghana's making a real effort. I'm pretty impressed with the level of transparency so far there, both with the companies and from the government. You know, it's a work in progress. I always knew when I started the film, the questions of: Who is going to benefit? Was this going to be done equitably? None of that was going to be answered in the foreseeable future. I really do think it's going to take like another ten years before you come down one way or the other on how the resources are being exploited. It takes time for these things to function and for people to get their act together. That's normal.

But you know, I certainly see there are a lot of people there who really do want to do the right thing. It's very difficult to do the right thing. And I think the only guarantee ultimately is going to be public accountability, which means encouraging transparency and encouraging the public, NGOs, and the press to really get their facts straight. And try to keep track of what's happening and to talk about it openly so that there's some accountability.

You've done two massive undertakings now. What does it look like when you're in between stories? Do you know what you're working on next?

I had two children while I was making this film. So the landscape of my life is very different than it was when I started the film. I actually think I'm going to make a film about my husband. I'm kind of excited about it. My husband's a fiction filmmaker and he's about to go make this crazy movie in South Africa. I just think it could be really fun to make a film about the making of his film. And my access would be great. I wouldn't have to fight for it. So I think I'm going to do that, just as a palette cleanser. I think it could be a really fun movie and I'm ready for a little bit of fun.