Rachel Boynton is the definition of a fearless independent filmmaker. She directed and produced the fascinating true tale of oil and greed called Big Men: Everyone Wants To Be Big, which makes its national broadcast premiere on Monday, August 25, on PBS's Point of View documentary series.
Big Men is about Dallas-based Kosmos Energy, a start-up Texas oil company that took an insane risk to discover massive oil reserves in one of the poorest places on earth, the West African Republic of Ghana. The film asks us to consider the struggles, corruption and complexities of a small fragment of the oil industry and the difficulties U.S. oil companies face after their explorations result in discovering black gold outside of America.
The documentary took six years to make. In the process, Boynton faced masked armed militants and suspiciously cooperative foreign government officials. The project so impressed Brad Pitt that he became an executive producer.
Accompanied only by her cinematographer, Rachel Boynton faced situations in Ghana and Nigeria in which most of us would have cut and run.
It began as a “crazy idea,” Boynton says. “I kept hearing these stories that we [America] were running out of oil, and then I heard about an unbelievable situation in Nigeria where militants were blowing up pipelines and causing world oil prices to skyrocket.” Boynton was fascinated by “the conflict between big oil money and small town rebels with machine guns.”
The quest took her around the world and into places never seen — the private dealings of an American oil company and the camps of foreign armed rebels who stole oil to survive. It’s a stunner of investigative journalism.
Making this kind of movie takes guts, patience and a truck load of persistence. Her film “crew” was only Boynton and a cinematographer. She was allowed unprecedented access to Kosmos Energy’s private conversations, and when they discovered a whopping oil reserve off the coast of Ghana, Boynton told them, “There's a movie in here with you guys.”
It was 2007 and Kosmos Energy’s was the first major discovery in Ghana. Boynton says the company’s CEO, Jim Musselman, believed the Ghanaian discovery was “worth somewhere between $4 billion and 5 billion” at that time.
She followed Musselman as he traveled to Ghana and neighboring Nigeria to meet with kings and government officials to assure that what Kosmos pumped off-shore was rightfully accounted for and distributed.
Accompanied only by her cinematographer, Boynton faced situations in Ghana and Nigeria in which most of us would have cut and run, like when she was met with a group of masked Nigerian militants, who call themselves the Deadly Underdogs and wear automatic weapons like jewelry. They never allow women into their camps, for strong religious reasons. They point with AK-47s to make their point.
Boynton, however, must be other-worldly at persuasion. Not only did the rebels invite her inside their camp, but they actually wanted to be in her movie, to have their side of the story told.
Since 2005, these rebel groups have been sabotaging oil pipelines in Nigeria, shutting down massive amounts of oil production because they are demanding more profits for their people. They see fat cat politicians reaping the benefits of oil, while their own people must live in the dark ages.
They take matters into their own hands.
There is one scene in Big Men where a Nigerian government official oh-so-politely and slyly answers Boynton’s questions — all the while looking as if he could chew her up and spit her out.
Was she ever frightened? “I was much more frightened by the Nigerian government [than the militant rebels],” she said. But her biggest fear? “Being kicked out of the country with only half a film!”
Following its August 25 television premiere, Big Men will stream on POV’s website from August 26-September 24.