Big Men gives viewers fly-on-the-wall access to boardrooms of billion-dollar oil deals, intimate chats with African royalty, and strategy sessions with an underground militant group as the story behind big oil unfolds in a compelling mix of capitalism, corruption, and greed. Filmmaker Rachel Boynton set out to illustrate what happens when American corporate interests meet West African politics while probing broader questions of human nature and motivation.
At the center of the storyline is Jubilee oil field Discovered off the coast of Ghana in 2007, Jubilee was big news: with proven reserves of 3 billion barrels and the first commercial oil field in Ghanaian history, its development was received with great anticipation by the Ghanaian people . . . and its American investors braced for generous profits.
The film follows the diverse cast of characters Jubilee brings together: George Owusu, the Ghanaian entrepreneur whose efforts led to its discovery; Kosmos Energy, the small, Dallas-based start-up that claimed Jubilee and did the drilling under the direction of its President and Founder, John Musselman; the Wall Street investors whose millions funded the vast endeavor; and the Ghanaian politicians who represent their country in the proceedings.
Juxtaposed with the story of Jubilee throughout the film is another account — of Nigeria’s oil economy. A vivid example of crumbled state legitimacy, Nigeria is consistently ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the world — Nigerian officials have stolen hundreds of billions of dollars, much of it oil money. Though their country is one of the world’s largest oil exporters, the Nigerian people are worse off since oil was discovered over 50 years ago.
As the camera pans over the Niger Delta, the heart of Nigeria’s oil production, a dilapidated houseboat floating by and families gathered on ramshackle huts along the water illustrate the grim reality of many Nigerian citizens. In moments, the film crew is face-to-face with a group of angry, masked men with AK-47s. The effect is startling, but the viewer soon learns that this abject poverty is their reality too — made all the more bitter as oil pipelines in their backyard pump billions of dollars into the pockets of crooked politicians and foreign investors.
Motivated by the country’s stark social inequity, militant groups like this one known as the “Deadly Underdogs” have been sabotaging oil pipelines since 2005, demanding a share of the profits for the people of the Niger Delta. Boynton has a candid interview with one of its members. Wearing a ski mask and absentmindedly shuffling cartridges in his hand, he beams as he speaks of how deeply he loves his son. “He can do better,” he declares. “That is why we are in this struggle.”
The decline of this nearby African nation is depicted as a cautionary tale for Ghana’s budding relationship with oil — the “resource curse” realized. And while the backdrop of Nigeria’s escalating violence seemed some- what heavy-handed and overly didactic at times, it remains a tangible representation of what can happen when state corruption and greed go unchecked. Themes of avarice and self-interest are evident throughout the film, reflected both in the story of oil in Nigeria as well as the plot surrounding Jubilee.
As the film winds up, the viewer feels poised to condemn the big-money men in suits as they chuckle about billions in “net cash” and make appearances in Ghana to shake hands with hopeful citizens. But the film has a way of portraying its characters, revealing them — virtues and shortcomings — in a way that is distinctly humanizing. Boynton allows them to speak for themselves. Before we can dismiss Jim as a corporate villain, the viewer accompanies him on a personal tour of the Musselman Ranch as he wistfully shares his dream of giving his children more than he received.
His sentiments echo those of the Nigerian Underdog who speaks of his son, both men articulating a desire to create a legacy for themselves and for their children. The viewer empathizes with Jim as he is demoted and watches his company achieve its dreams, his dreams, with someone else at the helm. But the sting goes both ways — Jim’s resentment happens just after he fires George Owusu, the Ghanaian businessman who made Jubilee possible for Kosmos, in an attempt to save face during an international investigation on corrupt practices.
A running theme throughout the fi is the notion of “big men” and what it means to be “big.” During an intimate gathering in the home of a Nigerian king, Boynton offers her observation that many people in Nigeria want to become “big men.” The king swiftly responds by pointing his finger back at her, “You too want to become big,” he says. “Nigerians are not an exception. Everybody wants to become big . . . . It is an instinct in every human being.”
Notably and true to its name, save for two women interviewed briefly and the voice of Boynton throughout, the film depicts a cast exclusively of men, raising questions of exclusion. The viewer is left wondering why more women aren’t part of the corporate or government side of the conversation — whether this was an oversight or a reflection of reality. Similarly, toward the end of the film are a handful of interviews with Ghanaian citizens sharing their sentiments regarding their country’s oil dealings. Revealing though brief, the snapshots almost have the effect of a post-script, raising their voices after omitting them from the main storyline with its focus on the “big men” of business and government.
Perhaps the omission is representative, however. While the government claims to be looking out for its people, the truth remains to be seen. Norway is raised as an example of a successful oil endeavor early in the film when a Norwegian representative is invited to speak in Ghana. His advice to the country is simple: remember that Ghana’s resources belong, first and foremost, to the Ghanaian people — and tax foreign investors accordingly. Musselman laughs this off and it’s the last we hear of it.
As the film winds to a close, Ghana’s future remains uncertain. Themes of divisive self-interest as a motivating factor are woven throughout the narrative and arise once more in a closing interview with a Ghanaian oil executive. He believes this urge is not an intrinsic human quality and his sentiment suggests a trace of hope in an otherwise seemingly grim outlook for Ghana’s oil future.
In sum, the film is dynamic and suspenseful, compelling in its coverage. It presents the story of big oil in Africa in a way that reflects the nuanced nature of the subject. Its reflection of reality is as insightful as it is troubling, and it is worth watching.
Big Men is available on Vimeo here.