“Big Men,” the latest documentary from filmmaker Rachel Boynton, is a sprawling chronicle of oil discovery and development off the coast of West Africa, a tall enough order for any filmmaker. But Boynton — whose last film, “Our Brand is Crisis,” showed how American political consultants sell themselves, and their tactics, in other countries — wasn’t satisfied with just that.
“I felt like I could do something better, something bigger, something epic,” she said in a recent interview. The result — which takes her and her “Big Men” crew from upstart energy company Kosmos’ bid to develop a big oil find in Ghana, to the dingy and dangerous Niger Delta to Kosmos’ offices in Dallas to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange — is also an exploration of human motivation.
“Everybody want to become big,” Egbema King Bini Pere III G.O.E. Tiemo, a key tribal figure in Ghana that Kosmos is trying to woo, tells Boynton. “It is an instinct in every human being, to be well to do.” The idea of being the “Big Man” in Africa is not new. The strong-man leader of V.S. Naipaul’s unnamed Africa nation in his seminal novel “A Bend in the River” is simply, “The Big Man.”
Boynton adds key context in “Big Men,” though, interviewing everyone from the AK-47 wielding Nigerian Deadly Underdogs militant group to the pinstripe-suited chairman of Warburg Pincus, the hedge fund that helped finance Kosmos’ venture in Ghana’s Jubilee Field. Her journey, from oil price boom days in 2006 through the capital-poor days of the financial crisis to 2011, shows how previous oil development in Nigeria weigh on Ghana’s development.
“So do you think it’s just human nature to fight like this? Over who’s going to get what?” Boynton asks at one point in the movie. The answer, as provided by the likes of Deadly Underdogs leader Ezekiel, Kosmos’ one-time leader Jim Musselman and a host of others, might be obvious by the end of the movie, but is delivered, as Boynton wished, in an epic way.
“Big Men” is playing at the Landmark E Street Cinema at 555 11th St. NW.
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Jason Dick is the Hill Life editor for Roll Call and has also worked at Greenwire, CongressDaily and National Journal Daily during his time in Washington. @jasonjdick