Saturday, March 29, 2014
"Big Men" looks at oil industry (Kosmos) in Nigeria and Ghana, with all the social, political, ethical and security problems
“Big Men”, a new “environmental” documentary by Rachel Boynton with Brad Pitt as executive producer and distributed by Tribeca, may start a little slow but soon has us engaged with the controversy created by “big oils” activity in west Africa, still sensitive to the history of colonialism.
The film focuses on a smaller Dallas-based oil company, Kosmos, that went public in 2011 (symbol KOS, on the NYSE; it had tried to work with Exxon-Mobil, which I used to own some of). In 2007, it had become involved in controversy in at least two countries, Ghana and Nigeria.
Visually, the Nigerian portions of the film are the most compelling. We see little villages of shacks along the river deltas, and then scenes of young men disrupting oil supply lines to set up secondary businesses to support their own families, often at great physical risk to themselves. Cinematically, the scenery is sometimes breathtaking, almost something out of Darren Aronofsky. There is a lot of talk that in poor countries, it is “every family for itself.” Then men usually wear colored ski masks, and play with matches (or oil hardware), as well as guns.
Back on August 16, 2008, I received a bizarre email from “NDYouths” that claims to be the “Democrats from the Niger Delta” and to have the “keys to oil facilities”. While it might have been spam picked up by a server looking for email addresses of bloggers who write about energy, it’s very strange that people overseas think that bloggers or journalists will intervene in what seems like a ransom-life theft from oil companies. The original story is on my International Issues blog, Friday, Aug. 15, 2008.
The controversy over the underwater project off the coast of Ghana (details in this article) plays out in a series of interviews with executives both back in Dallas (the Kosmos offices appear to be along 175, the North Central Expressway, maybe around Mockingbird; the law firm is in downtown Dallas just as in the TV series about the Ewing family) and Ghana, where one man lives comfortably in a forest villa but soon faces the loss of everything after his firing, Accra looks like a low, flat rather boring and poor place.
The film explains the important of the FCPA, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which starts nabbing som executives.
I lived in Dallas from 1979-1988, interviewed just one oil company for a job (that was Arco in 1983), but I would wonder if I were to work for one today in information technology if I could be expected to travel in countries like these. Nigeria recently passed a very draconian anti-gay law, making it illegal for gays even to congregate. (It’s illegal in Ghana, but hasn’t received much attention.) It can be dangerous to live and do business in any of these countries. Goodluck Jonathan of Nigerian signed that county’s law, and I believe he appeared in the film.
In the 1990s, I worked for a life insurance company that owned a Liberian ship registry as a subsidiary, and one user whom I had worked for actually took a position there. Living conditions in poor countries can matter in many employment situations. And there is certainly a connection between poverty, corruption, instability (for companies extracting natural resources, which are seen as exploiting the people) and social issues including harsh anti-gay attitudes.
The film did not get into the politics of Sharia law in the northern part of Nigeria.
The official site is here. / I saw it at E Street om Washington DC Saturday afternoon before a fair crowd; Friday night it sold out. It will play at the Algelika Theater at Mockingbird and 175 in Dallas, maybe near a Kosmos office, but not at Angelika Mosaic in the DC area (a very similar facility – I’ve been in both) as far as I know.
Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Niger Delta from space (north is on Left).