Image placeholder

Big Men Seek Black Gold on the Silver Screen

Tonight, Revenue Watch heads to the movies for the New York premiere of the documentary Big Men. The film tells the story of the competing claims that followed Ghana’s discovery of oil, and in parallel presents Nigeria’s experience with oil as a cautionary tale.

When director Rachel Boynton reached out a couple of months ago to the Revenue Watch Institute to see if we had any interest in the film, I was a bit cautious – actually, I was fairly skeptical. When I lived in Nigeria, I encountered a steady stream of journalists and filmmakers drawn by the evocative images of militants hiding out in the oil-choked creeks of the Niger Delta. The resulting stories often chose sides too easily, opting for narrative dramatics over considered nuance.

But upon watching the film, I was pleasantly surprised. Big Men’s accomplishment, as acknowledged in a glowing review by the New York Times, is that it tackles head-on the complexity of oil extraction in West Africa. Executives at the American company that discovered oil in Ghana are counting on receiving a healthy return on their high-risk investment. A new government accedes to power in Accra, and wants to maximize its share of the new revenues. Citizens wonder if the new wealth will end up generating any benefits for them—or if the situation will disintegrate as it has to the east in Nigeria. None of the above is cast as evil or benevolent; we as viewers are left to make up our own minds.

As Ghana’s oil production now enters its third year, the country is trying to strike the right balance between the interests depicted in Big Men. Ghanaians have put some laws and institutions in place that should help prevent against corruption and abuse, but questions regularly arise about how the government uses the revenues, and companies continue to jockey for access to a growing industry. The same complexity that Big Men embraces means that there is no easy answer about whether Ghana will avoid Nigeria’s fate.

For those of you in New York, Big Men plays for at least the next week at the IFC. (Tonight I’ll be moderating a short Q&A with Rachel after the credits roll at the 7.15pm showing.) Later this month, there are further screenings in cities including Washington, DC, and London.

View the trailer here: