Thru June 12
510 Texas St
In 2007, Dallas-based Kosmos Energy struck oil off the coast of Ghana—the first oil discovery in the West African nation’s history. What happened next—the struggle between Kosmos and the Ghanaian government for the projected billions of dollars in revenue, the bribery accusations, and the political turmoil the find created in Ghana—is the subject of filmmaker Rachel Boynton’s fascinating new documentary Big Men, which opened on Friday at Sundance Cinema downtown.
Boynton, whose previous documentary Our Brand is Crisis (2005) examined the work of American political consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum in the 2002 Bolivian elections, became interested in African oil exploration around 2006. “In the news at the time everyone was talking about how we were running out of oil, and there were a lot of scary news stories,” Boynton told me by phone from Cape Town, South Africa, where she’s teaching a class on documentary filmmaking.
Boynton, who had no contacts in the oil and gas business, decided to fly from her home in New York to Lagos, Nigeria, where she began “knocking on doors,” trying to get interviews with local businessmen, government officials, and leaders of militant groups who were attacking oil pipelines (see below). Her initial goal was to study a single offshore drilling project, but no oil company working in Nigeria was willing to let her film their work.
So she turned to Kosmos Energy, then a virtually unknown wildcatting operation that had managed to secure an exclusive contract to explore Ghana’s territorial waters for oil. Kosmos was a privately held company based in Dallas and funded by private equity groups like Blackstone. Unlike the other oil companies she approached, Kosmos gave Boynton full access to its executives and its offices as they negotiated with the Ghanaian government and tried to placate their nervous investors. Her first shoot was at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston; over the course of the past six year, she and her crew travelled seven times to Ghana and six times to Nigeria. The film takes the viewer from a militant camp in Nigeria, where men with masks over their faces and AK-47s in their arms tell Boynton about their goals, to a corporate boardroom in New York.
“I don’t think a publicly held company would have ever said yes, but at the time Kosmos was a privately-held company [it went public in 2011] that was run by a handful of guys who were basically wildcatters in Africa,” Boyton told me. “They had just made this phenomenal discovery in Ghana, and they thought they had a really good story to tell.”
The story quickly became more complicated than Kosmos had imagined when a new Ghanaian president was elected on a platform of renegotiating the contract with the American company, which seemed unfair to many Ghanaians. The chief worry was that Ghana would become like Nigeria, which has remained mired in poverty despite its extraordinary oil wealth, due mainly to corruption and bad governance. There were also accusations that Kosmos had bribed Ghanaian officials, which Kosmos denied but which led to its CEO being forced out.
“This, for me, was always essentially a story about the way the world works,” Boynton said. The film’s title, Big Men, is a catch-all term for the wealthy and powerful in Africa. “It’s not passing judgment in black-and-white terms. It’s fundamentally a film about capitalism as much as it’s a film about oil. It’s a story about who gets what and why.”