The world of international oil deals is not an easy one to enter with a camera. And I knew no one in the oil business — or in Africa — when I began this film. I started with a pen, a notebook, an idea and a plane ticket to Lagos, Nigeria. But I took the attitude that I could get to anyone if I was careful and patient enough. In the end, I spent almost two years traveling back and forth between West Africa and New York, getting all the necessary permissions to shoot before I ever picked up a camera.
I wanted Big Men to take you into exclusive and dangerous worlds, to put you into the room right as events are unfolding. The film does this in scene after scene — introducing you to presidents and gun-toting militants and letting you eavesdrop on businessmen making multibillion-dollar deals.
As I tried to figure out how to enter all these worlds, I began with the premise that everybody was connected — that it was only a matter of degrees of separation. In Nigeria this proved shockingly true. Ultimately it was a businessman who introduced me to the wife of a major militant leader, who gave me the number of a Delta State government Commissioner, who introduced me to Tom Polo, the godfather of the Niger Delta militancy in the West. (I needed permission from “the man at the top” in order to film with the militants; traditionally they don’t allow women in their camps, and security for me and my cameraman was a serious concern.) Business was directly connected to the rebels, who were intimately connected to the government. It was a very small world indeed.
Money motivated everything. And so many people had so little. So many people struggled to survive.
I remember one particular car ride in Lagos. It was raining by the bucket-full and traffic had slowed to a crawl — what’s known locally as a “go-slow.” The road was built for two lanes of cars, but three were jammed in, and in between the makeshift lanes flowed a steady stream of people, hawking toilet seats and fashion magazines wrapped in plastic, tee-shirts and rat poison. I was on the phone with my husband describing the scene. In the middle of the traffic stood a young girl, 8 or 9 years old, wearing a diaphanous pink nightgown, sopping wet and shivering. She was begging for change from passing cars. “How sad,” said my husband. “Yes,” I said, “but she probably makes more money in the rain.”
That girl’s world was brutal. There was no safety net — no publicly funded shelter for runaways, no reliable public health care system if she were to catch a chill in the rain and fall sick. A huge portion of public funds were siphoned off by officials trying to make money on the side or were wasted by contracts awarded to people with great connections and no capacity to actually accomplish the work. And most likely the people that girl relied on to keep her safe had sent her into the rain in her nightclothes because they thought she’d come back with more coins in her pocket than she would have gotten if the sun were shining. She was alone in a world where everyone was out for himself.
It was like a heightened version of a world I knew — an example of capitalism taken to an extreme, where rampant individualism takes root and the larger connections between people fall apart.
Big Men is a movie about that world and about the system in which we all live. Personal profit is the great motivator. We all want to become bigger than we are, to make more money and to achieve greater renown. And everyone is concerned with looking after his own people — his own family, friends, tribe, company, shareholders. The major difference is in who each of us considers “his own” to be.
For me, the safeguard against divisive self-interest lies not in denying that we’re all looking out for ourselves, but in recognizing and valuing what connects us.
Big Men does this too. It’s a movie about shared human nature, as much as it’s about oil. It doesn’t pass judgment on people; it seeks connections between them and looks for what they have in common.
And it asks important questions about harsh realities. If you assume a nation’s resources should do the greatest good by benefiting the greatest number of people, who in reality gets included in that number and why? What does this very basic motivation — the pursuit of profit — do to the way we all behave? And when maximum individual profit is the ultimate good, isn’t it inevitable that a very few will have more while a great many will have infinitely and tragically less?
— Rachel Boynton, Director/Producer/Writer