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Big Men: How far will we go for oil?

Still from Big Men documentaryWhen Rachel Boynton decided to make a film about the oil industry she’d never been to Africa, didn’t know anybody there, and certainly didn’t know anyone working in oil.  But that didn’t stop her booking a flight to Nigeria and emerging several years later with an astounding documentary that follows CEOs, government ministers, and armed rebels as they deal with the discovery of Ghanaian oil and the ‘resource curse’.

Big Men follows several of the key players in the discovery and extraction of offshore Ghanaian oil over several years, from the initial explorations through to corruption scandals and the beginning of extraction. The amount of time dedicated to the film, and the access they’ve been able to achieve, makes this a rare gem of observational filmmaking that successfully marries flesh-and-blood human beings to their broader socioeconomic context.

While there are plenty of films which outline the impact of the oil industry, Big Men is probably alone in documenting this process from within the companies themselves and drawing a balanced picture of the well-heeled elite that steers clear of demonizing them. I imagine it’s particularly difficult to help an audience understand someone like Jim Musselman, the Texan CEO of Kosmos Energy. It’s particularly interesting to see his journey from Texan ranch to an audience with the Ashanti king, and witness the pressure placed on him by the international corruption scandal which threatens his work.

Having said that, Big Men doesn’t pull any punches in showing how the oil industry impacts ordinary people on the ground and the devastation it’s caused in Nigeria. Rachel Boynton and her crew recorded villages surrounded by burning oil wells, which were set alight by villagers themselves who use sabotage to force clean-up operations and create jobs. They also follow Niger Delta rebels in their struggle to access the vast fortunes being extracted from their land, showing us the fathers and husbands that lie under the balaclavas and the impossible choices they’re forced to make. As with the ‘big men’ running what looks from the outside like a crazy system, we see how environmental destruction and violence are caused by individuals acting within limited circumstances which serve to rationalize their behaviour.

Even though it was screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Big Men doesn’t make an explicit call to action and Rachel Boynton herself stated in the Q&A that she isn’t an activist filmmaker. The film’s true power lies in documenting how each person’s narrow perspective and efforts to further their own self-interest cause large-scale phenomena. On my way to the screening I was reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse, in which he frequently laments the inability of archaeological record to tell us the human stories behind the decline of ancient societies. It may be that future generations look back at this film to help them understand the processes driving our environmental crises and what prevented us from taking corrective actions. I hope Big Men makes them more forgiving in their judgement.

Big Men was recently screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London and is now touring the US. If you have a chance to support the festival then please do, it holds screenings all over the world and does incredibly important work to raise awareness and promote activism about a wide range of issues. Please do check out their website.

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Jacob recently completed the MA in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester and currently works as a qualitative researcher by day and filmmaker/film journalist by night. His favourite documentaries are The Last Train Home, Hoop Dreams, and Encounters At The End Of The World. He’s also a big fan of VICE and loves long sessions watching short documentaries.

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