The illuminating documentary Big Men tells a variation of the oil story in Africa. Nigeria was an example of fifty years of oil discovery, with busted pipelines, and rampant pollution, a result of the business of oil. Ghana was next in line for oil extraction. Attracted to this story, filmmaker Rachel Boynton asks the tough questions of the "big men," African government officials and American companies like Kosmos, that wish to profit. These characters appear so willing to explain their greed on camera. I asked Boynton the obvious:
what's a nice girl like you doing with a subject like this?
I finished my first film, Our Brand is Crisis (2005), was proud of it, and felt the desire to do something bigger and harder. Empowered, I noticed oil prices were going through the roof. I wanted to tell a story from the inside. West Africa was a new frontier for oil exploration. I grew up with central African art, with Peace Corps parents. In late 2005, I saw a story about the military in Nigeria. In 2006 I bought my first plane ticket to Lagos.
What was the biggest challenge?
Cell phone reception. This is not a flip answer. People have 3 cell phones. To get real answers, or have a conversation, you have to fly there. Access comes first. I was travelling in Nigeria with Sebastian Junger who needed pictures for a Vanity Fair article. I saw that he could get things done by giving people a copy of The Perfect Storm.
What was it like working with Plan B, now so successful with 12 Years a Slave?
When Brad Pitt attaches his name to projects, he helps make them exist. Dede Gardner is not just a producer, but phenomenal in the cutting room.
What do you hope this film can accomplish?
This film is about capitalism, about the concept of self-interest and what it does to people. The oil business is epic in scope. I don't see it as good or bad; I see the world in a super complicated way. I am not an advocacy filmmaker. My interest is capturing issues about the way we live now, to make a portrait of something emblematic of the way the world is. I ask, how are we living on the planet?
How did you juggle your work in Africa with your personal life, newly married and wanting a family?
My husband is Executive Producer Steve Schainberg who made Secretary (2002). His new film is The Big Shoe, about a foot fetishist shoe designer. After travelling in Nigeria, I got pregnant. I didn't take malaria pills. I recommend a site, The Pregnant Traveller.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.