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Docu shines light on ‘Big Men’ of oil ‘Ghana not another Nigeria’

ACCRA, April 12, (AFP): Filmmaker Rachel Boynton set out to give a new perspective on how the world keeps the lights on and cars on the road. It took her nearly a decade, but the result is “Big Men”, a documentary — backed by Hollywood A-lister Brad Pitt as executive producer — about the dynamics of oil production in west Africa. The film includes rare access inside the boardroom of a US oil company working to get Ghana’s new-found oil deposits out of the ground. Also featured are militants in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta region, whose insurgency crippled output until a 2009 amnesty deal. “If (the film) were to come to a conclusion it would simply be: everyone is looking out for themselves,” Boynton told AFP in an interview. Nigeria, where massive energy revenues have largely been squandered through decades of corruption, was supposed to have been the film’s primary focus. But once Texas-based Kosmos Energy began making progress on wells off Ghana’s coast, Boynton decided to add the country into the story. Getting consent to document the internal deliberations at Kosmos was not easy.

But Boynton ultimately secured the trust of one of the firm’s executives and brought others on board by means of a PowerPoint presentation. “The part of the film that is in Ghana is really about a conflict between a government and a company,” she explained. “And the conflict in Nigeria is really about a conflict between a government and its people.” Comparisons are often drawn between the two former British colonies Ghana and Nigeria, particularly since the former began commercial oil production in late 2010. For many, Nigeria, Africa’s biggest crude producer, is seen as the prime example of how oil wealth can wreak havoc on a nation if managed badly. In Ghana, officials, private companies and civil society leaders repeatedly insist in the film that the country must not become another Nigeria. Ghana currently produces roughly 100,000 barrels of crude per day —less than the amount that is stolen each day by bandits in Nigeria, which produced about two million barrels a day over the last year. Despite some minor trouble spots, Ghana has so far been generally praised for the management of its nascent oil sector.

There’s no insurgency in Ghana’s oil-producing heartland and the country has been heralded for passing laws to promote transparency and ensure the equitable distribution of money from oil sales. Boynton said it’s too soon to tell if those laws have worked. “There’s no way to know the answer to that question for I’d say another 10 years, definitively,” she said. “Everyone I spoke to in Ghana seemed to have a real willingness... to do things right.” In Nigeria, that sense of optimism faded long ago. The list of massive corruption scandals linked to Nigeria’s oil sector is impossible to count but one recent example sparked particular public outrage. The former head of the central bank, Lamido Sanusi, was ousted from office after accusing the state oil firm of stealing $19 billion (14.5 billion euros) through 2012 and 2013.

The government said he was removed for “financial recklessness”, although many dismissed that charge as spurious and suspected political motives after he dared to lay bare the extent of top-level graft.
And, while the amnesty in the Niger Delta has tempered violence, analysts fear that unrest could return when the deal, including the huge payouts to militant leaders, expires in 2015. Getting access to film the Niger Delta militants was a far trickier proposition than securing consent to set up a camera inside a US boardroom.

But Boynton succeeded, despite the fact that the armed gangs that patrol the maze of creeks in the region don’t generally allow women into their camps. “Big Men”, which has earned four- and five-star reviews from leading US critics, premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York ahead of its wider US release last month. Although it documents the interplay between the US corporate world, African governments and armed oil rebels, “it’s not a film that comes to some sort of political conclusion about the justice of a particular contract,” Boynton said. “It’s a film about human nature.”

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