'Big Men,' the latest UMass Boston Film Series offering, shows the audience what happens when oil is discovered in Ghana

Rachel Boynton’s “Big Men” examines the West African oil industry in the convoluted context of political and corporate corruption.

The film focuses on the complicated relationship between Kosmos Energy, a United States oil production company and the country of Ghana after oil reserves are discovered off its coast. Boynton tracks the trials of this relationship and explores its pervasive implications.

The film is shot in three major locations: Ghana, a country with newfound commercial potential, Nigeria, a hotbed of corruption, and New York City, the center of American capitalism. 

The film focuses on the development of Ghana’s Jubilee Oil Field. In the beginning of the film, Kosmos Energy, led by CEO James Musselman, is consolidating a business relationship with Ghana’s political leaders. As the film progresses, this endeavor hits several majors snags. Over the course of the film, Kosmos struggles to overcome these setbacks, while continuing to profit off of Ghana’s resources.

As oil production gains momentum in Ghana, political leaders and business tycoons reap massive profits, while the local community suffers in a state of third world squalor.

A system sustained by poverty and greed, the oil industry in West Africa is an industry in which foreign companies exploit natural resources to turn a profit, a practice that reeks of modern Western imperialism. The film reveals the thin line between ambition and greed, and the point at which noble intentions devolve into materialistic pursuits and survival strategies into scavengery.

Though the film sympathizes with the struggle of the Ghanaian and Nigerian people, it strives to present an inclusive and objective view of the situation. Boynton conducts a comprehensive set of interviews; she speaks to oil industry stakeholders ranging from political officials and industry power players to young rebels and local humanitarians. Still, despite her attempts to present the information as evenly as possible, the economic inequalities make themselves apparent as shots of corporate success are juxtaposed with scenes of extreme poverty.

A few scenes in the film are sadly fascinating. One such scene depicts the use of a computer-operated machine, remotely controlled, laying the first pieces of Jubilee’s underwater infrastructure. In another, Boynton interviews a masked and armed militant who earnestly explains how oppressive conditions have driven him to a life of rebellion and sabotage. These scenes allow the audience to understand the smaller elements that contribute to the film’s bigger picture.

“Big Men” is a cleanly shot documentary; it is structured and well-edited, but in no way pretentious. Many cinematic elements are artistically executed. Visually striking scenes and interview footage are seamlessly interwoven.

Captions and commentary are written in a classic, white font superimposed on vivid background images. The shots in which nature and industry are visually intertwined are both poignant and hauntingly beautiful.

In terms of audio, percussion-based instrumentals provide the film with a forebodingly tribal yet oddly mechanical feel. Overall, the cinematic composition is simple and effective and does not detract from the film’s message.

“Big Men” is a well-executed documentary. It makes its point clearly and simply. It offers a realistic glimpse into a sad system of winners and losers, and reveals a system that is in need of major change.

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