Big Men

PBS Premiere: Aug. 25, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

Filmmaker Rachel Boynton discusses the making of her film, Big Men, with Chris White, Vice President of Programming and Production at POV.

POV: So for viewers who haven't seen the film, tell us what Big Men is about.

Rachel Boynton: Big Men is about oil, from inside oil, which is one of the things that I think makes it kind of exceptional. I got permission from this American oil company called Kosmos Energy, as they discovered and developed the first oil field in Ghana's history, to follow them, and to follow their relationship with the government of Ghana and to basically beat by beat track what happens to them.

At the same time, I was filming in Nigeria, which is just down the coast from Ghana, filming principally with a group of militants there who were blowing up pipelines and demanding more money for their region. The reason I did this is because when you're making a film about finding oil in a developing country, I think the first question on everyone's mind is, are the people going to benefit from the resource? And I knew that I wasn't going to stick around Ghana for long enough to see that question answered there and I wanted to address the question. So filming in Nigeria really allowed me to explore the question of how much the people benefit from a resource like this in many countries that find oil.

POV: Tell us a little bit about the characters, James Musselman in particular.

Boynton: Jim is the CEO of Kosmos. Kosmos was really his idea. He'd worked at Triton, this company where they discovered first oil in Equatorial Guinea and he'd worked with all these guys that he brought together for Kosmos. He's a serial entrepreneur. He's a guy who loves to start things. And he had this vision for what he wanted Kosmos to be and he brought Brian on board and then they brought more people on board. As a film, I think one thing that a lot of people remark on is that it isn't really vilifying the oil guys. Some people love that about it. Some people really have a problem with it, because here is this movie about oil extraction in a developing nation that isn't vilifying the guys who are doing the oil extraction. And that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

I did that on purpose. I did it on purpose for several reasons. When I finished my last film, it was extremely well received, Our Brand Is Crisis. It came out and people wrote these glowing things about the movie. And in all the reviews, they just tore the political consultants to shreds. It's this film about these American political consultants. The reviewers loved the movie and hated the people in it. And that really bothered me because I spent an enormous amount of time trying to listen to these people, trying to make an open film. And so I made a very concerted effort with this movie to make it really hard to automatically vilify anybody in it. And I did that because, first of all I don't think you can automatically vilify anybody. I think the world is a very complicated place. I also think that learning stops when you start labeling people in really clear terms like that. When you start saying, this person's good and this person's bad, your mind shuts down to the complications of a really intricate situation. And just because I'm not vilifying the oil guys doesn't mean that I'm not concerned with the benefit for the people of Ghana. Those two things can be true at the same time. I'm just a big believer in trying to portray things in a complicated way.

Big Men is fundamentally about the question of self-interest and the question of wanting to be big. When I first went to Nigeria I heard this phrase, wanting to be a big man, I'm the big man, go see the big man. I mean you hear it everywhere. And it fascinated me. And I would hear it all the time, every day. And of course we use it in America, but we don't use it with the same frequency or ease. And it really was for me this kind of crystallization of an impulse that I recognized from the streets of New York, but that people didn't label in the same way here. They didn't give voice to it in the same way. And so I became fascinated by this idea of wanting to be big. And I asked everybody about it, like all my interviews, talk to me about the big man, who's the big man, do you want to be a big man? Who wants to be a big man? But it really did become the theme of the movie, this idea of everyone wanting something for himself. And being big, it means money and it means reputation. Those are basically the two things that get you to be a big person. Big man, cause it's mostly men in the movie. And everyone wants that. Everyone. Over and over and over again. It really struck me that Emi, this militant says basically exactly the same thing as Jim Musselman. He says, I want to give something back to my family. I want my children to have more than I had. They say exactly the same thing. It's very human, the desire to do something for your own. And it links everybody in the movie.

POV: When I watched Big Men, aside from the story, which is fascinating, and the characters, it's about access with a capital "A". It really is. We are talking to board members in New York City of the investment banks who have substantial amounts of money invested in these projects. We're talking with Ghanaian politicians, we're talking with Ghanaian land men or oil men on the ground, as well as Nigerian rebels or militants who are victims and perpetrators of the destruction of the oil situation in Nigeria. How did you get these people to open up to you?

Boynton: Anyone who's willing to be in a film feels like he or she has something to say. And I think a lot of people have a story that they would be happy to tell if they felt like someone was really listening to them. I think it's really human to want to see yourself reflected somehow in the world. Everyone wants to be seen. And they don't just want to be seen like on the street, they want to be seen as how they see themselves. They want recognition for how they think they are. And when you understand that about yourself and about other people, well when I understand that, it informed what I did and how I went about the making of the film. People always ask me this question, how do you get access to these things? I make certain promises to people. I say I'm going to do certain things. And I actually do them. I'm a painfully sincere person. If I say to somebody, I'm going to try and show you the film before I show it to the public, I really try to show them the film before I show it to the public. If I say to somebody, if you tell me to turn off the camera, I will, I do. I don't film people secretly. So I think a big part of the access has to do with respecting people's limits and also with respecting the idea that they have something that they want to say and taking the time to listen to that.

One of the things I'm proudest of with this film is that it's basically impossible to make this movie. It will never exist again. And I don't say that to toot my own horn, I just say it cause it's true. Getting this kind of access to all these different people is almost impossible, and by the end I was pretty worn down. I was pretty driven. I was kind of a crazy person. I was traveling back and forth to Africa like a crazy person, really. I'd come back for like a couple weeks and then I'd say to my husband, I got to go, I got to go again. And I'd get back on the plane and I'd go again because I was really for some deep reason compelled to make this movie.

And I worked really hard. So I think that has something to do with the access because I just didn't give up. People would say no to me and I just didn't give up. Like a no was just a moment. No, okay, well tell me why. Explain to me why you're saying no. I really do believe that this sense of respecting people, that has a lot to do with getting people to say yes, and keeping your word as a filmmaker.

For me, this isn't a film about the continent of Africa, or about a bunch of Texans. For me it's a film about how the world works economically. And it is about coming to terms and grappling with these big questions about who gets what out of these deals and why? And a lot of people have asked me, what do I hope people will get out of this movie when they walk away from it? I have to say, spending as much time in Nigeria as I did really radically altered me as a human being. And it radically altered the way I see my world. And when I go outside and I see the trees trimmed around the electrical wires, or I turn on the lights in the morning, or I turn on my tap and I can brush my teeth with the water, whatever it is, I'm very conscious of the privilege of every single moment. And I am deeply aware of the fact that there are way too many people on the planet who are living without drinking water. It's so hard to get across what that means to people. I don't think you can really express it in a film or in a conversation. Maybe a poem can do it. But people, they don't have water to drink. Really basic needs aren't being met. And this is happening in countries that are producing billions and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of one of the most vital resources on the planet. There's something wrong with that, just on its very basic levels. There's something wrong with that. Human beings should not be living that way. Now the film is not a film that's getting on its high horse and saying all of that. What the film is doing is it's looking at the reasons why that's true at some level. And it's not blaming the individuals involved. It's not saying, it's your fault that this is the way the world works, because it's not their fault. It's not their fault at all. And to look at it that way is, is to me enormously reductive. But I do hope that people will come out of the film, thinking about the structure of things and why things are the way they are and how we're all involved in it, whether we like it or not.