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Encounters Africa Doc Fest: Brad Pitt-Produced 'Big Men' Tackles Struggle For Oil Off Ghana's Coast

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by Tambay A. Obenson
June 6, 2014 12:29 PM
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The 16th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival is currently underway, kicking off yesterday, June 5, and running through the 15th, in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Over the next 10 days, I'll be highlighting some of the more intriguing (to me) films, scheduled to screen, starting with this one.

To co-opt a now popular phrase M. F. Stephenson made during the gold rush of the 1800s ("There’s gold in them thar hills... there’s millions in it”), there's oil in that thar coast... millions of barrels of it... potentially. 

It's an all-too familiar story - one we've seen examined on film on many an occasion.

As the saying goes, there are two sides to every story; or is it that there are 2 sides to every story, and then there's the truth?

We're talking about black gold, AKA oil, and the business of it - those who have it in abundance (and sometimes don't even realize it, or don't have the full capabilities to access and exploit it), and those who desire it (who also typically have the right tools to obtain it), if only for the potential rewards (usually monetary) being in control of it can generate.

Over the years we've heard of many-a-story about Oil companies (usually from the so-called west) *pillaging* other lands of their energy resources, while also, in some cases, simultaneously dumping toxic waste in various local bodies of water, which could, and have had innumerable repercussions on the land, its food and water supply, and, in the end, the people who inhabit the land, who are often marginalized.

Of course the oil companies refuse to accept any responsibility whatsoever, all in the name of profit. And despite attempts to challenge their occupation of these lands, none has been successful enough to shut down their operations permanently.

And so it maybe shouldn't be any surprise when those who are directly affected, take up arms against these companies, and violence ensues, as they seek to protect their resources, in what is essentially a struggle for survival.

There's no happy ending here. David doesn't get to bring Goliath down with the stone in his sling, and cut off Goliath's head. Despite the relentless efforts of groups like those profiled in several documentaries we've profiled on this site, they all simply can't match the monetary will and power of the mega-conglomerates. 

Dissemination of information on a situation that many may not know about, is typically the idea with these films; humanizing the faces behind the usual "rebel violence" headlines, and making their fight accessible to even the average American, so that we all know just how connected we are in this vicious cycle of greed and oppression.

All that said, a new documentary currently touring the festival and screening series circuit, titled "Big Men," from director Rachel Boynton, looks to tackle the "oil in Africa issue" (specifically, off the coast of Ghana), although, based on what I've read of the film (I've yet to see it), it's much less a clear-cut David vs. Goliath story as I laid out above, and there apparently aren't any clearly identifiable *good* and/or *bad* guys, as the filmmaker doesn't take sides on the central issue, but simply documents what is really a complex, global matter.

Here's an official synopsis:

Big Men follows what happens when a Texas oil exploration firm makes an enormous discovery off the coast of Ghana. Gaining unprecedented access to reveal big business in oil, it took seven years and several trips to Nigeria before Boynton started filming (including gaining access to the camp of one of the key militant groups The DeadlyUnderdogs). Boynton's style of filmmaking is mind-blowing: she has an incredible ability to gain an insider's access that most filmmakers dream about, perfectly positioning her to go behind closed doors and into intimate spaces. This access is critical when Kosmos makes an enormous discovery off the coast of Ghana. Christened the Jubilee Field, this deposit had the potential to return a staggering 2.2 billion to investors.

Worth noting, the current conflict in the Niger Delta, which is about 20 years old, is rooted in tensions between foreign oil companies and Niger Delta ethnic groups who believe that they were/are being exploited.

Brad Pitt is executive producer of "Big Men."

Rachel Boynton is an award-winning filmmaker, whose last film (also her directorial debut), the 2005 documentary "Our Brand Is Crisis," on American political campaign marketing tactics and their consequences, picked up several accolades, including the International Documentary Association’s Best Feature Documentary Award, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. George Clooney’s production company, Smokehouse, plans to remake Our Brand Is Crisis as a fiction feature. 

In the meantime, watch a trailer for "Big Men" below:

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