‘Big Men’ Director Rachel Boynton on Capturing an African Oil Rush

 James Furmanski / Abramorama.

When a small Texas company named Kosmos Energy discovered oil off of the coast of Ghana in 2007, an incredible cast of opportunists, hucksters, company men, and political operatives descended on the unstable West African republic. Documentarian Rachel Boynton followed the crowd. Big Men, her Brad Pitt-produced film about the resource grab, shows all sides of the petroleum-fueled conflagration that followed.

Boyton spent the next seven years following the black stuff as it leaked from the African oil field onto the U.S. market, keeping track of who was actually benefiting from the strike. “This isn’t a film about good guys and bad guys,” she says. “It’s entirely about self interest.”

Thanks to nearly complete access, Boynton introduces viewers to the Ghanaian company who discovers the oil, the Wall Streeters who invest, the Texas oil start that does the drilling, and the Ghanaian government officials trying desperately to make educated decisions after centuries of exploitation. Set against the cautionary tale of oil violence in Nigeria, the film also shows how criminals siphon oil and corrupt officials steal pieces of the crude pie.

“This term, ‘Big Men’ you hear it absolutely everywhere in Nigeria,” Boynton explains. “Being ‘big’ is having a lot of money or a lot of reputation, and everyone in the film is going after the same thing.”

And it took some of America’s big men to finance and complete the project. Famed journalist Sebastian Junger introduced Boynton to the Nigerian militants in the creeks of the Niger Delta. “I was traveling with Sebastian, and he was trying to get in touch with the militants for this Vanity Fair piece and we were both coming up short, and then one day, someone looked him up and realized he’s a real dude with big credits to his name.” The militants agreed to meet with Junger if he brought a signed copy of his book. Returning to the United States, Boynton realized she needed a celebrity alliance that would also open doors, and approached Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, which signed on immediately.

“There’s multiple stories going on here,” Pitt recently told the Hollywood Reporter. “There’s the oil industry itself. There’s our understanding of the development of the third world nation. And there’s a bigger human story at play.” Boynton evenhandedly follows all three stories, never vilifying business men, infantilizing locals, or condemning the militia members whose attacks she documents. No one in this world is innocent and the film forces viewers to seriously consider whether or not Ghana’s good fortune was fortunate at all and whether major opportunities can exist within a broken system.

“I’m really interested in the bigger questions about human nature,” says Boynton. “It’s an evergreen question: What happens when the piles of gold begin to grow?”