Review: Big Men (2014) new documentary about oil, greed, and politics opens Friday at Sundance Houston. Here's my interview with director Rachel Boynton.

June 5, 2014


BIG MEN (2014) Jim Mussleman, John Agyekum Kufuor, Nana George Owusu Asare. Written and Directed by Rachel Boynton

Oil, money, greed, and politics come into play in this fascinating new documentary written, produced, and directed by Rachel Boynton.

When a vast and untapped reserve of oil is discovered just off the coast of Ghana, a small Texas start-up company called Kosmos Energy looks to secure a deal with the Ghanaian government. Billions of dollars are at play and Rachel Boynton is there with unprecedented access to not only West African royalty and American oil companies, but masked and armed rebels who are all chasing after the almighty dollar. The film plays like a global capitalism soap opera and despite the fact that all parties are plagued by avarice, Boynton chooses to remain non-judgmental in this totally engrossing piece of work. Brad Pitt serves as the executive producer of the film which took seven years to complete. I recently sat down with Rachel Boynton and we discussed her new film.

JF: What compelled you to make a film about oil?

RB: "Well I actually started thinking about this movie in 2005-2006, at the time oil prices were going through the roof and everyone was talking about it and I wasn't seeing anything in terms of documentary that didn't seem politically motivated. I was seeing a lot of stuff that was very frightened about the fact that we seem to be running out of oil but I wasn't seeing anything from inside the industry. I'm always really interested in perspectives that I'm not seeing so I thought that would be a really interesting film. What if I could get inside the oil business? "

JF: In the movie you interview and follow around executives from the Dallas company Kosmos Energy, Officials from the Republic Of Ghana, even masked and armed militants, how did you gain access and the trust of all involved in the film?

RB: "Well I have this theory basically that everybody is connected and if you just meet enough people and ask enough questions ultimately you'll get to the people you're going after, and that was sort of the attitude that I took when I started making this film. When I began I didn't know anybody in the oil business and I didn't know anybody in West Africa so it was really a journey of discovery, it took a long time to get to all these people."

JF: Who was the toughest to gain trust from?

RB: "I would say the oil companies. They don't have a tendency to allow independent filmmakers to come in, film them, and control the footage. I've never heard of it happening before, so the fact that Kosmos allowed me to do this was pretty extraordinary."

JF: When I first heard the film was about oil, I though it was going to be a negative piece about the oil companies and their effect on the environment, and of course it's not, so is there a "Villain" in the film?

RB: "That's not really how I see the world. You know I don't really see the world in black and white, I see a lot of shades of grey and I think there's a tendency often when we're talking about reality and complicated things to try and simplify them into the evildoers and the angels and that's just not the way the world works. The world is a very complicated place and always will be."

JF: The movie took seven years of your life to make, how has it changed you as a person?

RB: "Wow that's a really big question. Well, making this film definitely changed me as a person. I learned a tremendous amount, and I started by thinking I was going to make the whole film in Nigeria so I spent about a year and a half traveling back and forth from New York, where I live, and the Niger Delta and I met thousands and thousands of people and the people I met really did change me. I've never experienced a place like the Niger Delta. I think it's hard to go there without being changed by it."

JF: Sure, especially when you see these people just trying to do whatever it takes to survive.

RB: "Yeah it really is a question of survival. There was this one point while I was making this movie when I came home and found this letter requiring me to do jury duty, something I avoided doing in the past, and I went to downtown Brooklyn where you sit in this little office surrounding by so many different kids of people and I felt so incredibly proud, for the first time in my life to be able to do this and to live in a place where you can do jury duty, where that system works, and it felt like an enormous privilege. That sort of thing, that sort of waking up to the things around me, that's the result of having made this film."

BIG MEN opens Friday June 6th at the Sundance Cinema in Houston. (3 1/2 stars)