“Big Men” is a documentary film by Rachel Boynton who gained unprecedented access to the inner workings of the oil business. Boynton filmed a small group of Americans at Dallas, Texas oil company, Kosmos Energy. Boynton's film covers the years 2007–2011 when Kosmos and partners discovered the first commercial oil field in Africa’s Ghana.
The film is a look at one of the poorest places in the world and what desperation can lead people to do. You’ll see Boynton’s closeup view of private executive meetings talking about billions of dollars and a militant gang in the swamps of Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Variety called the movie a real-life "Chinatown" or "There Will Be Blood."
“Big Men” was the winner at Cinema for Peace, earned a Grand Jury Prize at Festival International, and was named official selection at Tribeca Film Festival.
Examiner Dorri Olds sat down for an exclusive interview with filmmaker Rachel Boynton on the afternoon of March 10, 2014.
Dorri Olds: Do you think the major question of the film is whether or not Ghana is going to become just like Nigeria and remain a poor country with just a couple of fat cats?
Rachel Boynton: I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s working on a lot of different levels. It’s putting Ghana against Nigeria and asking the question. I always knew I wouldn’t know the answer. It could not possibly be answered unless I filmed for 20 years. The goal of the film is to raise the right questions. The film is of a deep philosophical nature. It’s about greed and desperation and wanting to be big. That’s what connects everybody in the movie. When I was asking the questions it got turned around on me at one point when I was asked, “Don’t you want to be big?”
How did this film change you?
Making the film radically changed me as a human being. Before the film I knew no one in Africa. I went there with only a few phone numbers in my pocket. While I was there I met thousands of people. I don’t think that you can spend time in towns like those I visited — where they still used gaslights — and not be altered. It really changes you when you see people living with nothing.
How did you gain such close access?
In Nigeria it’s very hard to get to people. I had to make my own friends and make my own way. And I had to be very aware of my surroundings at all times. There’s a moment in the film — the pipeline story — that was one of the first things I shot. I had a new camera and needed to test if it was going to work. I heard about the fires and thought that would be a great thing to test my camera on so I went there. I got to speak to the people who’d set those fires. They lived right there and people die from these fires. When I asked why they were shooting themselves in the foot, one guy said, “If I shot myself in the foot and someone paid me for it and I didn’t die then that’s alright for me.” I had never seen that kind of desperation. It was so dark and the man was quite serious.
What else stands out in your mind?
There was this one moment when I was traveling back and forth and back and forth like a crazy person. We were the only people there shooting in Nigeria that weren’t arrested and deported. Getting the right permissions was the only way to do it. At one point, back home I got a notice for jury duty. I went and I sat there in this cruddy office and saw this sea of humanity — white, black, rich, poor, short, tall. It made me want to cry. I felt really lucky that I was there, able to serve on jury duty.
That does sound like a powerful experience.
One morning I saw all of these New York Times lined up for the people who have subscriptions and it struck me that you can have it delivered to your house, it can be left there, and nobody steals it. I’d never thought about things like that before.
It must’ve been amazing to have a powerful star like Brad Pitt sign on to produce the film.
Yes, that was very lucky. Without a big name it would’ve been very difficult to get enough funding to finish the film.
Did you meet Brad Pitt through George Clooney? I read that Clooney showed interest in doing a narrative remake of your earlier film, “Our Brand is Crisis”?
No, the two things had nothing to do with each other.
Then how do you explain your amazing luck at getting those two huge stars interested in your work?
I really think it just comes down to good karma.
“Big Men opens in New York City on March 14, 2014 at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas and West 3rd Street. Not rated. 99 minutes.