Friday, May 2, 2014

Big Men

Nigerian photos by Akintunde Akinleye from The Atlantic, January 15, 2013, Nigeria's Illegal Oil Refineries - In Focus - The Atlantic

BIG MEN            B-           
USA  Great Britain  Denmark  (99 mi)  2013  d:  Rachel Boynton         Official site

While Joel Berlinger’s Crude (2009) documents the way multi-national corporations like Texaco and Chevron do business with South American nations while in pursuit of oil profits, often taking the money and resources while getting out quick, leaving the land ravaged afterwards with toxic spillage left behind in the rainforests, endangering the lives of the indigenous population living there, Rachel Boynton takes a look at the business dealings on the other side of the globe, where in 2007, Ghana, with the aid of the Dallas-based Kosmos Energy Corporation, discovered new oil reserves in the Atlantic Ocean just 35 miles off their coast.  Oil had never been discovered in Ghana before, so the impact was enormous.  Seven years in the making, Boynton got into the story early on near the point of discovery, when Wall Street investment firms were projecting profits in the neighborhood of $22 billion dollars.  Hard as it is for the public to believe, new oil reservoirs are not something discovered every day, in fact it’s an extremely difficult process to locate new sources of oil, one of the specialties of Kosmos, as for the past 100 years these competing oil companies have spent a good portion of their technology and expertise scouring the earth in search of more oil, so by now there are few surprises left that haven’t already been explored.  Boynton is given rare inside access to Kosmos, developing the trust of CEO Jim Musselman, whose company is bankrolled by the investments firms of Warburg Pincus and the Blackstone Group, firms that are only interested in a hefty return for their investment, where in their eyes, the higher the risk, the greater the reward.  The combined initial investment is somewhere in the neighborhood of several hundred million dollars, climbing to a billion before a single barrel of oil has been pulled out of the ocean.  Boynton’s cameras follow Musselman as he is introduced to a Ghanian tribal chief bearing bottles of Scotch and Hennessey along with a $10,000 donation to an educational charity.  The introduction is managed by a local businessman, George Owusu and his EO Group, the Ghanian oil company that brought the outside interests of Kosmos into the deal.  Despite the pleasant, easy-going nature of Musselman, raised on a family farm in Texas, there is something altogether off-putting about the experience, as it recalls notions of colonialist exploitation. 

Boynton opens the film with quotations on the subject of greed from Milton Friedman and John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRE MADRE (1948), suggesting there is an ugly side of capitalism, which only grows more pronounced with the intersection of First World and Third World economies, where the drive for profit quickly outdistances itself from any system of laws in place, where the film is a case study on the behavior of financial sharks in the water, as the Jubilee Oil Field is a reservoir of great untapped wealth, drawing out the ruthless self-interests of all competing parties as they position themselves to determine who will reap the rewards.  Musselman is part of a business network of complex relationships, with Kosmos executives, financiers, consortium partners, and the government of Ghana which ultimately has the last word on any business dealings within its borders.  Musselman is on good terms with Ghanian President John Kufour, securing favorable terms in the initial contracts drawn, hoping to sign a Plan of Development to produce the oil.  Initially all signs are optimistic as the price of oil is skyrocketing, but this is followed both by the 2008 financial crisis depressing the price of oil and an opposition party candidate, John Atta Mills, winning the Ghana Presidential election, which puts all the political goodwill and hopes of favorable concessions in jeopardy.  Making matters worse, George Owusu also falls out of favor when he’s investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for alleged bribery and corrupt business practices, charges he vehemently denies.  Left out of the story are unmentioned partners of Kosmos, other oil companies that actually own a combined 61% stake of the Jubilee Project, including Anadarko Petroleum, a rival Texas oil firm that actually prompted the inquiry.  Nonetheless, Kosmos cuts tires with Owusu, as they want no perception of impropriety as they embark upon negotiations with the new Ghanian President, but the Kosmos Board of Directors also lose faith in Musselman and have him replaced.  This turn of events is surprising, since the arc of the story was being told through Musselman, as in the process Boynton loses internal access as well, leaving the viewer a bit in the dark.  Musselman, who remains a top executive, indignantly rationalizes how he fell out of favor, but it’s hard not to think how he did the same thing to George Owusu, who was later exonerated of all charges.   

As a counterpoint to the story of Kosmos in Ghana, Boynton intercuts scenes from neighboring Nigeria, the tenth most petroleum-rich nation in the world, and by far the most affluent in Africa, yet a combination of corporate exploitation and government corruption has turned the Niger Delta region into a nightmare of oil spills, environmental destruction and lawlessness, where armed militia groups like the Deadly Underdog militants control access to the pipelines in their territory.  As much as 75% of the profits are siphoned off into the hands of various interests, where ten years ago it was considered the second-most corrupt country on earth (after Kenya), NIGERIA: Nigeria angry at being rated second most corrupt, more recently replaced by Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan (Read more at Transparency International).  These Nigerian militants claim none of Nigeria’s oil wealth makes it back into their impoverished communities, that it instead finds its way into the hands of the “big men,” who are governmental officials and well-connected businessmen.  These images are by far the most harrowing, where holes cut into the pipelines create pools of spewing oil that are set on fire, with the local population stealing and reselling black market oil in areas perpetually surrounded by flames, as billows of black smoke surround the region, controlled by young kids wearing ski masks and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles.  While Boynton’s ability to gain access to both Jim Musselman and the Deadly Underdogs is impressive, she never makes any connection between the two, where the colonialist history of exploitation is never mentioned.  Ghana and Nigeria have differing histories, yet this is not explored, even as the director contrasts and compares the two nations.  Like her earlier film, OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2005), Boynton chooses not to use a narrator, but instead advances the narrative by filling the screen with an excessive amount of written material, which, when added to a procession of talking heads, is a bit of information overload.  Adding the Nigerian picture is fascinating, but diverts the interest and may actually belong in another film, as this film is more a profile of the inner workings of Kosmos Energy, shedding light onto the difficulties foreign enterprise runs into when dealing with governmental instability and changing regimes.  As a portrait of an American company in search of wealth, it can at times be fascinating, especially the candid views of capitalism in progress from Musselman once he’s been ousted from power, but as a portrait of Africa, it never connects the dots, where the impact of colonialism affects every African atrocity, especially in Nigeria, where past historical transgressions impact upon the present, but this was never addressed, leaving the overall journalistic picture incomplete.     


  1. Haven't seen this one, but seems to tackle a lot of difficult subjects. I'll try to find it.

    By the way, I love your blog!


  2. Thanks for chiming in, Arion.

    By the way, interesting comments of your own on River Phoenix and several of the other lost souls of Hollywood.

    Keep up the good work.