The best documentaries give you unfettered access to a world that would otherwise be closed off. During a screening of Rachel Boynton's film Big Men, an expansive look at the power players in West Africa's oil industry, I turned to my viewing companion about once every five minutes to express my disbelief that Boynton was able to get such sensitive and seemingly private moments on film.
The film—which credits Brad Pitt as an executive producer—begins in 2007, following the rise of a scrappy Dallas oil company called Kosmos Energy that wants to develop Ghana's first commercial oil field. Through Boynton's years of filming (the movie goes through 2011), we get a glimpse inside the world of powerful men—or "big men"—who will determine the future of the Jubilee oil field: the under-recognized man who originally discovered the field, the shifting leadership inside Kosmos, the Wall Street investors, and the Ghanaian government (which abruptly changes leadership at a pivotal moment for Kosmos, putting its whole oil field plan in jeopardy).
There's also a parallel storyline in Nigeria, where plentiful oil has led to the rise of militants, who blow up gas pipelines and steal oil in protest of government corruption. The Nigerian experience is a warning to the Ghanaians: Be careful, or this is what can come from your newly discovered riches.
Through it all, Boynton is able to get incredible access, filming the Kosmos leadership during some of its most tense moments, and even following a group of masked, gun-toting Nigerian militants called "The Deadly Underdogs" as they protest corruption. What happens, she wonders, when a nation that has seen riches from other industries pass it by suddenly has a new valuable resource? And how does it deal with the Western oil companies that want a piece of the action?
Boynton came up with the idea for Big Men in 2007, when oil prices started hitting the roof. "I felt like I wasn't seeing anything in the documentary world that was giving me real insight into how the industry works from the inside," she explains. A little more digging led her to West Africa—an under-explored new oil frontier where American oil companies were scrambling to get a piece of the action.
At first, Brian Maxted, the now-CEO of Kosmos Energy, ignored Boynton's emails. Eventually he relented, letting her in to make a PowerPoint presentation about her film. "Getting them to let me in the door in the beginning was very difficult, and managing to stick around when things got really tense, that was hard too," she says. "One of the things that makes the film really incredible is that you get to be in the room with these guys. You think to yourself, "My God, has this ever been on camera before?'"
Getting access to the Nigerian militants was perhaps an even bigger feat. I the beginning, Boynton didn't know anyone in Nigeria, and the militants don't generally allow women into their camps for religious reasons. "I asked Brad Pitt to executive produce the movie and he said yes, so I think that probably helped," she says. In the end, it still took Boynton a year and a half to get inside the militant camp.
While the film focuses on African oil, its storylines are mirrored in industries across the world. "From the perspective of anyone involved in business, I think it's a very interesting film. It's an incredible window into the challenges that happen in a place where the politics are unpredictable and culturally the differences are vast. It's so easy for miscommunications to take over and snowball and situations to get out of control," says Boynton.
Big Men opens March 14.