Picture in your mind the Niger River Delta. What do you think of? Water, mangrove trees, fishing boats?
Try brown sludge-filled waterways flanked by constantly flaring gas stacks. Welcome to Oporoza, Nigeria — the place where 10 percent of U.S. oil imports originates.
When filmmaker Sandy Cioffi traveled to Oporoza in 2006 to make a documentary about a community library, she did not expect to return with Sweet Crude, a film that mentions AK-47s more than books. But at the library’s opening ceremony, a student group (read: political activist group) protested, objecting to Chevron’s role in funding the library and calling for local resource control. At that point, Cioffi started to see a larger story about the oil industry’s exploitation of Nigeria.
In Sweet Crude, we see the polluted rivers, the smoggy skies, the assassinated political leaders, the depressed villagers, the corrupt government leaders, the corrupt oil executives, the violent resistance fighters, the non-violent activists, the academic experts, the inept Western reporters, and even the arrested (yes, arrested) filmmaker herself. And if you’re starting to feel like that’s a lot of drama for a 100-minute movie, you’re right.
Sweet Crude is long. And it’s unwieldy. Cioffi starts with a discussion with local political leaders on the environmental devastation of the delta region, follows with a primer on Nigerian history, then debates violent vs. non-violent resistance, and ends with an indictment of the Western media’s neglect of the Niger River Delta story. In each instance, she presents an elegant case, but she could have made four documentaries here, not one. Jamming all that material into one long film does a disservice to the bigger story.
However, it’s hard to criticize Cioffi because her work provides an excellent expose of the downside of being a petro-state. The narrative of oil production causing misery for developing nations is not new, but watching someone in his mid-20s — who, by the way, speaks perfect English and is dressed in Western clothes just like yours — tell you that the life expectancy of his region has fallen from 60 to 40 years in just the last decade — that’s chilling.
What Cioffi does in Sweet Crude that’s so memorable is simply to bring the human element of oil exploitation to the big screen. Westerners may be familiar with stories of gas price spikes caused by Nigerian rebel attacks, but rarely do we see the faces of the people behind the attacks or consider their rationale for engaging in such warfare. Considering the U.S. alone purchases 48 percent of the oil that Nigeria produces, it’s time we start to face, and see the faces of, the consequences of our oil habit.
Watch it: Sweet Crude is showing at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 13. Check the SIFF schedule for details.
For readers outside of Seattle, check the Sweet Crude website for details on other screenings.