Movie Review: “Big Men” Is A Thrilling Documentary Not To Be Missed

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Review by James McDonald

“There will always be a scramble for oil until it’s replaced by something else”. – Kyeretwie Opoku, GNPC Board Member

What I really liked about “Big Men”, a documentary that focuses on the revelation of the first commercial oil field in Ghana, is the fact that we are shown both sides of the story and there is never a true villain in the entire piece. We are first introduced to a small group of American explorers at Dallas-based oil company Kosmos Energy, and between 2007 and 2011, with unprecedented, independent access, the two-person crew filmed inside the oil company as Kosmos and its partners discovered and developed the first commercial oil field in Ghana’s history. Simultaneously, the crew filmed in the swamps of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, following the exploits of a militant gang to reveal another side of the economy of oil: people trying to profit in any way possible, because they’ve given up on waiting for the money to trickle down.

I’m not much into politics per se, I keep up with current events but outside of that, there is just so much going on in the world that’s it’s virtually impossible to keep up with it all. One of the benefits that becomes me as a film reviewer, is the opportunity to watch movies and documentaries that will not be seen by the majority of the cinema-going public. So many of them are small, independent productions that don’t have the luxury of a million-dollar marketing budget that will give them a fighting chance to show their project to the masses. With “Big Men”, it really opened my eyes to what exactly is going on in Nigeria and the surrounding areas.

When oil was discovered in Ghana around 2008, many people exclaimed that it was an opportunity for an impoverished nation to benefit from the breakthrough but at the same time, others were saying that the living conditions for the majority of the poverty-stricken nation have still not improved, even taking into account that it is considered the world’s 7th largest producer of gold so how would oil be any different? The film doesn’t give us a solid answer to this question but it does address it and for many, at least acknowledging it and presenting it to the powers-to-be, means taking the first step in what I assume will be a very lengthy process. We hear in the news so many times, about pipelines being cut off and set on fire and the film talks to many of the local militants in Nigeria and the Niger Delta who have claimed responsibility for these antics.

One militant exclaims that he was told by a Shell contractor if they were to cut the pipelines and then set them on fire, they would get a clean-up contract and give the locals a cut of it and so this becomes a never-ending cycle. The power holders, usually within the government, seize the oil resources and then turn them into their own private estates so the problem comes from the top and trickles its way down. A procedure the locals use to try and make money is called “bunkering”, a practice which uses illegal means to open up pipelines and whatever they manage to extract from them, that money does not go into the National Treasury as we’re told it’s supposed to, it goes into the local’s pockets because they’re living in poverty. Oil bunkering is huge business in Nigeria and the Niger Delta. It starts at the very top within the government and these people are so wealthy, they can pay off any police commissioner or senior official and make them look the other way.

So the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. Sounds very familiar, right? In the end, this is a story that cannot be wrapped up neatly by the time the end credits roll but it’s the first film that I can recall, that at least tries to show you both sides of the story without making one more villainous than the other. I guess it depends on whether you’re directly involved or not but since when has that ever stopped people from pointing their fingers at others and placing the blame?

Now showing at the Angelika Dallas and Plano

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James McDonald
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