Documenting the struggle against Shell

0 Posted by - November 17, 2010 - Conversations, Features, Screen

Sweet Crude is the best documentary on a social resistance movement that I have ever seen. While The Weather Underground is a close runner-up, Sweet Crude stands high above the rest as a powerful, incredibly well-made film that picks through the multiple layers of a movement’s history, its divisions, failures, triumphs, tactics, and philosophies. The movement comprises the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta and their decades-long resistance to Shell in the region.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and other people of the Niger delta area are the focus of Sweet Crude, a film that could have easily been another David vs. Goliath legal battle narrative in the tradition of Bananas, The Coca-Cola Case, and Crude. But director Sandy Cioffi was less interested in Western lawyers and more interested in the diverse, politically involved and extremely articulate individuals who make up the human front against Shell’s environmentally devastating practices in Ogoniland.

The film tells the long struggle of MOSOP and other activists, from the early 80s on. During that time people have organized actions against Shell, a foreign company that has extracted oil from the region for over 20 years earning billions in profit, but has not helped the people of the region lift out of poverty, nor managed to safeguard the environment in the process. Oil contamination is rampant. Gas flares light up the sky constantly, polluting the air and endangering citizens in proximity. The fight against the rapacious actions of Shell came to a head on May 21, 1994, when four Ogoni chiefs including Ken Saro-Wiwa were murdered.

Evidenced in the film, the Ogoni activists accuse the Nigerian government of colluding with Shell – allowing the company to use private militias and imprisoning and executing activists that cause a protracted nuisance to the company. In the course of years of struggle against Shell, the non-violent movement Saro-Wiwa headed has splintered into an armed resistance and a continuing non-violent one. The reasons and suffused political principles behind this schism are thoughtfully teased out in Sweet Crude, providing a clear history that could otherwise confuse anyone exterior to the movement.

Sweet Crude is not just a film about a nasty oil company getting away with countless injustices in a foreign country. It is a documentary about a social movement that has been all but forgotten by mainstream media, and to a large extent, the Western world in general. The film implores us to remember these warriors for justice and the environment – these brave and extraordinary men and women who risk their lives every day to improve the world around them. It is not difficult to paint a villainous portrait of Big Oil, but it takes a talented and attentive storyteller to piece together the myriad social and political elements of a robust and complicated movement, and form them into a coherent and powerful narrative.

Sweet Crude is a celebration of passionate politics and resolve. It is also an indictment against one of the greediest and immoral companies that has operated on the planet. Through the exposition of the Ogoni struggle, specifically the many voices that are shared throughout the film, we come closer to understanding this ongoing conflict – its ontology, trajectory, and transformation. By intimating these politically-charged spaces with the brave and powerful characters in Sweet Crude Cioffi has crafted a masterpiece that needs to be seen by every single person outside of Nigeria – those of us who may have become to busy or distracted to remember why we must stand in solidarity with the Ogoni of the Niger Delta.

Sweet Crude director Sandy Cioffi

Below is an interview with director Sandy Cioffi about the process of making Sweet Crude, on Shell, and why this film has been difficult to disseminate.

Art Threat: You found out about this story accidentally, while on another filming assignment. Was it a no-brainer to jump in to such a complicated story or were you hesitant? How did you first make inroads with the community and ultimately gain their trust?

Sandy Ciofi: I first went to the Niger Delta to film the building of a library in a small village, to be shared between previously warring ethnic groups. By the end of the first hour, I had a more-than-meets-the-eye intuition and it turned out to be true. We had landed in the headquarters of a militancy that was just being born. By the end of the first week, I was completely engaged by the village children and the mothers who carry enormous family responsibility. I was afraid for the pending violence. Stunned by the complexity of the situation. By the end of that trip, I knew I had to go back. I returned to make a documentary. We gained access to all the major stakeholders. And somehow were in the right place at the right time to be called on as messengers. We have gone to oil company corporate responsibility directors, contacted our elected representatives, begged the media to pay attention to what we clearly see as urgent. We are beginning to see it working. A voice through the media would invite millions to call for change – a call the world desperately needs to hear and act on.

That sounds like it was a clear and easy decision. It was not. It is an ongoing conversation about documentary filmmakers—do you remain “removed” enough to do your job well, or are you “immersed” enough to be accurate and culturally true to your subjects? The balance is enormously difficult to strike. I think that I veered into oncoming traffic at times to be honest.

The film is a powerful genealogy of a social resistance movement and is also about corporate culpability. Do you feel both of these issues informed the film, or does one take precedent for you over the other?

These are the two primary driving themes in the script every time we wrote and re-wrote. I think that the additional question is what role the “international community” must play in nations that have been literally designed like a resource ATM machine to come take and take.

Why do you think this terrible exploitation has lasted so long with little coverage in the mainstream media?

Africa in general receives paltry attention. Anything other than a pure victim/perpetrator lens is really a struggle. And, let’s face it, this is about OIL. And, as such, is as complicated and then simple as it gets. Nigeria also has a long history of resistance movements that do not seem to worry about an appealing media message for the masses. And the story requires an interest in real responsibility and change here at home. These are not savoury features to mainstream media.

Have you ever spoken with anyone from Shell, and if so, what have they said about their activities in the Niger Delta? Did you send them a copy of the film? Did you send a copy to the White House? Do you feel it’s even useful to get this kind of media into the hands of the powerful and the decision and policy makers in America?

I interviewed a contract employee for Shell. But the majority of my contact has been with Chevron. I have sent them the film. We screened it the night before the Chevron Shareholders meeting in Houston this year and invited employees and shareholders. I am uncertain right now about the efficacy of screening. We have done special screenings in DC for lawmakers and diplomatic intelligentsia. I don’t know. The most difficult disappointment has been the establishment human rights folks who seem stuck to a narrative about corruption that is convenient for us to blame Nigerians for all of the trouble that we have manipulated for years.

How have they, the members of the community you filmed, reacted to the film? How can your work directly benefit them or has it already?

I always thought that if I did my job right, 80% of the people in the community would be pleased and 20% would have something they disagreed with and flip the percentages for the media, U.S. officials and oil company executives. Yes, many have seen it. I am very relieved and honoured that most all feel it is honest and they feel represented fairly by it.

Do you feel any responsibility as an artist/filmmaker to tell the stories of those who are oppressed and caught up in struggles with odds weighed heavily against them?

In short, absolutely. The most ignoble of the results of most forms of oppression is the loss of your own story. If I can be a part of alleviating that, it is worth it.

The film hasn’t been broadcast despite being one of the best documentaries I have ever seen (and I’ve seen thousands). Why?

I intentionally did not cut a version of this film that would have been the arrested journalist intrigue film or the victim African film or a lot of other well-known and problematic approaches.

Well, first, thank you. I cannot say that it has not been frustrating. Audiences have really responded to the film, the reviews are quite good, the awards keep coming – and yet, no distribution. I suppose a documentary about an African nation with no star narration is a tough sell in traditional distributor thinking. And I know that we could have made a “slam dunk” appealing film for distributors. I intentionally did not cut a version of this film that would have been the arrested journalist intrigue film or the victim African film or a lot of other well-known and problematic approaches. Perhaps our critique of mainstream media has had something to do with it [Note: The film includes a fantastic look behind the scenes of corporate media’s coverage of the struggle]. I really do not know. I do know that I still have hope that the film will hit and spread in time to impact the knowledge of the issues before the elections in Nigeria this April.

What were the technical challenges to filming in such remote and polluted areas? Were their also safety and/or health risks for you and your crew? How big was the crew? How did you raise the money needed to make it?

Well, we had to deal with extreme heat and rain and broken gear. Our crew had to bring in all of our own food and water to stay healthy, which was intense to experience. We were arrested on the fourth trip and held in military prison for a week. But the risks to us were minimal compared to what Nigerian journalists face.

The film was funded by individuals who believed in the story and its urgency. I was rejected for over 15 grants. But the community stepped up in a tremendous way.

What’s next for you and for the film?

I am still recovering a bit. I have two films in development. Sadly, I am really struggling to fund the next project. I hope to solve this very soon. I am very eager to get into production now.

To find out more about Sweet Crude and to purchase the DVD, go to the film’s official site.

Leave a reply