Getting affordable oil comes at a price, especially to local populations. This was probably best explored in Joe Berlinger’s 2009 documentary Crude, which focused on Chevron’s pollution and negligence in Ecuador. It’s a film that also cost Berlinger dearly: a legal action brought against Berlinger by Chevron resulted in more than $1 million in legal fees for the filmmaker. There’s a cost when you take on powerful interests, no matter where you’re from.
Something similar in terms of power is going on in Andrew Berends’s documentary Delta Boys. We’re told at the beginning that Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States and the eighth largest exporter of oil in the world. And yet most of the country lives in poverty, without jobs, without schools, without paved roads, and without clean water. Out of frustration, militant groups have risen up to fight the oil companies and the government along the Niger Delta.
Watching the film, you get a ground’s eye view of militant life, which falls somewhere between freedom fighter and gangster.
Director: Andrew Berends
Release Date: January 15, 2013 (iTunes, Hulu, VOD, SnagFilms, Netflix Watch Instantly)
Even though I’m pretty ignorant of the situation along the Niger Delta, it seems rash to think of the militants in Delta Boys in terms of moral absolutes. They are freedom fighters in that they want what’s best for their country and its people (or at least they say they do); they are gangsters because with any type of power comes the ability to abuse it. The figurehead/godfather of one of these militant groups is Ateke Tom. He controls his nearly 2,000 militants with charisma, the way a business leader or a cult leader would. When he says go, you go, we’re told; and when he says you don’t go, you don’t go.
A fight breaks out among Ateke Tom’s rebels, and when Ateke Tom scolds those involved, Berends shoots the scene like Ateke is a disappointed father telling his boys to get along. He’s a fascinating person to watch. He’s a rotund man and looks incapable of fighting as well as his very fit militants, most of whom are in their twenties. And yet they fear and respect him (again, the scolding father image come to mind). During a press conference that Ateke Tom holds with local reporters, he seems a bit like a disinterested musician, but we see a certain fire from him later as he rallies his troops for a potential attack on an oil refinery.
The sense of power descends down the ranks. Two militants that Berends interview speak highly of their goal and who they are, one declaring himself immortal in a metaphorical sense — if he dies, there will be someone else who will rise up to take up the cause for him. It’s the sort of talk that could end with cries of “Viva la revolucion!” But in the scene after this, two villagers tell Berends that to speak against the militants means death. There are bodies buried all over the seashore as evidence. And in the scene after that one, we watch militants deal out punishment to one of their own by beating him all over the body with a switch. There’s another scene where punishments are measured out in this way, and each time the men squirm like children as they writhe on the ground beneath the blows.
But the choice in these parts of Nigeria seems to be revolt or starve. The militants eat well whereas the villagers eat not so well. While the film is more about the militants than the ecological effects of oil drilling and refinement in Nigeria, Berends does look briefly at how a young fisherman’s job has been affected by chemicals in the water. A sickly rainbow sheen covers the water, which gives a sense of how bad things have become. The fisherman acknowledges why people go into militant life — if there were no other jobs and militancy means something other than starving, why not? Faced with a similar choice, I would probably join up as well. It would be something to believe in.
While there are no embedded militant attacks caught in this ground’s eye view of the Niger Delta, Berends does capture some tense moments on film. When he’s initially introduced to the militants, there’s a moment of absolute stillness that’s surreal. It underlines Berends’s outsider status as a white filmmaker (he even admits ignorance about the intricacies of the conflict at the film’s outset), and it leads to one of the great extemporaneous lines in the documentary: “Say only what you see. Don’t add or subtract.” We also get a tense moment when one of the local women goes into labor. Without a hospital in the area, she waddles to the local midwives who help with the difficult birth. Berends nicely allows the worry and bustle of these moments to play out.
Though brief, Delta Boys offers a nice glimpse at the way the lives of militants crossover with the lives of the villagers they’re ostensibly supposed to protect. There’s focus on a young man named Chima, one of the militants, and how much his mother misses him and wishes he’d come home. Delta Boys opens with images of boys who couldn’t be older than 10 playing with a beetle tied to a string. They’re carefree, they’re all smiles at that moment. I wonder what fate awaits them along the Niger Delta; I wonder how many more mothers are destined to miss their sons.