No Concessions: Rachel Boynton’s New Documentary Follows Big Oil into Africa

Director Rachel Boynton talks her new film about American oil companies in Africa, called Big Men, and the universal appeal of being big.

March 14, 2014

Director Rachel Boynton on Her New Film, Big Men, and the Universal Appeal of Being Big

“One of the cool things about this film,” says Rachel Boynton, director of Big Men, “is that it’s getting you into these rooms that you’re really not supposed to be in: you’re not supposed to be sitting in a room with the president and CEO of an oil corporation while they’re having a quiet conversation; you’re not supposed to be with the militants as they’re prepping to go out on some mission.”

And Boynton is right—in an era rife with excellent documentaries, Big Men, which chronicles the exploits of a small Dallas oil company named Kosmos as it breaks ground in Ghana’s nascent oil industry, is remarkable for its access and breadth. Five years in the making, Big Men paints a comprehensive, and shocking, portrait of the industry. Boynton invites us to ride shotgun across the Nigerian Delta with a masked gang known as the Deadly Underdogs; accompany an executive as he pays his respects to a Ghanaian king; and later join him as he shoos cattle out of the way on his Texas ranch.

The story that emerges over 100 minutes is as rich as a barrel of sweet crude oil. Watching Big Men feels like we’re part of Boynton’s adventure: the film moves at a healthy clip, and never loses the momentum necessary to pull viewers through what might otherwise be an arcane, unwieldy subject—the establishment of an oil industry. But more than that, Boynton harnesses a story about oil to investigate a universal question as pertinent to Ghanaians as it is to Americans: How does newfound wealth change the way we treat each other, and how do we struggle for a greater good in a world plagued by self-interests?

Ahead of Big Men’s run at the IFC Center this week, The FADER called Boynton to discuss her film and the true meaning of being a big man, or a big woman, as the case may be.

What got you to Ghana in the first place? I finished my last film in 2005, and back then everyone was talking about the price of oil. You’d turn on CNN and literally every 30 seconds there’d be a story about oil prices going through the roof and whether the world would survive prices of $100 per barrel. It was very much in the common parlance but I wasn’t seeing anything from the inside of the industry. Originally, I wanted to get inside an oil company. But then I started doing some research and found that West Africa was this new frontier for oil exploration. I decided that that would be an interesting place to look for a story. Then, right at the end of 2005, this militancy started popping up in Nigeria: militants were kidnapping oil workers, blowing up pipelines and demanding more money for the region. I thought, OK, there’s got to be a film there. So I bought a plane ticket to Nigeria and I started from there. I didn’t know anyone in the oil business, I didn’t know anyone in West Africa—I just went.

What does it means to be a “big man”? In the States, the term “big man” isn’t a common phrase, but it is something you hear sometimes: “He’s the big man on campus.” But you don’t hear it like you hear it in Nigeria. In Nigeria you hear the term “big man” ten times a day: “Go talk to the big man,” “I want to be the big man,” “I am the big man,” etc. It’s just everywhere. That immediately caught my attention and sparked my attention—this idea of wanting to be big and talking about it so openly. It fascinated me. It was this crystallization of something I knew intimately from where I was from, but it was something people didn’t talk about so openly. Nigeria was like capitalism on acid—a heightened version of the world that I came from. Once someone puts on a uniform, they become a big man. It doesn’t matter if you’re a parking attendant or a general in the army. You can be in a parking lot and if a guy has a uniform, he feels like he can tell you how to live your life while you’re in his parking lot. And he will refer to himself as the “big man.” When I became sensitized to it, it became something I started looking for whether I was in the swamps of the Niger Delta or the Stock Exchange in New York.

Even though the film is in large part an investigative journalistic work, it’s also a look into the nature of greed—And the difference is between desperation and greed. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about. There are parallels being drawn in the film between people who are siphoning oil out of pipelines and people who are making billions of dollars off of oil deals. Everybody’s trying to get the maximum they can out of this resource and everyone feels justified in trying to get the maximum they can. And everyone, in their own right, is justified. It’s not a film that’s trying to point at one person or another and saying, Oh gee, aren’t you a bad person for wanting more? It is looking at the larger repercussions of what happens when everyone’s out for himself and the larger connections between people fall apart.

Is the motivation driving the oil executive in Dallas and a member of the Deadly Underdogs tapping a pipeline similar? I think the circumstances are radically different, but the motivations are similar. You can’t compare their circumstances—one group of people is living without drinking water and the other has private jets. The circumstances are radically different. But Big Men isn’t a film that’s trying to look at the corporate folks as being evil for wanting more. The moment you start labeling people, you start distancing yourself from the conversation. It’s really easy when you get it into black and white terms—saints and sinner—it’s easy to stop thinking about how you are personally connected with what’s going on in front of you.

There’s a point in the film when someone suggests that as the director, you want to be a big man too. Do you feel like you want to be a big man too? Big woman, as the case may be. I spent a lot of time while I was making this film thinking about what it meant to be “big.” And the two things I came to were about money and reputation. I’m certainly not someone who’s after a lot of cash—if I were, I wouldn’t be doing this. That said, sure, I’m concerned with wanting to be big in my own way.

One of the big topics the film circles around is the nature of greed—how do we work toward a greater good when we’re driven by our own self-interest? Do you think that we’re greedy by nature? I think people have a beautiful capacity for self-reflection and change. I also think that nature and human impulse are very strong—it’s human nature to look after ourselves and our own. But I don’t think self-interest has to be greed. The challenge is to recognize our natures, to confront how we really feel and to be honest about it, and integrate that into a way of living that incorporates certain ideals. If we believe that people shouldn’t be living on this planet without drinking water, or that people shouldn’t be dying of diarrhea in a swamp in a country that makes billions of dollars per year from natural resources—if we look at that situation and decide that there’s something morally wrong with that, then we have to reexamine this fundamental idea of maximizing one’s profits. Those things are interrelated. We have to acknowledge the fact that we all want more for ourselves, but we also have to find a way to value the things that connect us. I take it for granted that self-interest is a part of human nature—the question is, Can you have a way of living that incorporates that, but still acknowledges the deep connections between people?

Big Men is opening at the IFC Center today and is opening across the nation in the following weeks.

No Concessions: Rachel Boynton’s New Documentary Follows Big Oil into Africa