Many oil and gas analysts know Nigerian energy fundamentals like backs of their hands, effortlessly rattling off statistics like the country’s 2.4 million barrels per day of 2011 oil production accounted for about 3% of the world’s total or the fact that Nigeria was tied with Australia as the world’s fourth largest LNG exporter that same year. And the soon-to-be released documentary “Delta Boys” begins much the same way, identifying Nigeria’s place in the global oil and gas producer hierarchy.
However, few analysts truly comprehend the situation as it exists on the ground. The same goes for the millions of news consumers worldwide that follow the complex web of human rights, environmental, political, economic and energy supply issues that pulse throughout the resource-rich region.
And that is what is so compelling about Andrew Berends’ film: As someone who has closely followed the situation for the better part of the past decade, zooming in on Google Earth to catch a glimpse of what the massive hydrocarbon extraction facilities look like, I am fascinated by the intricate maze of watercourses winding like veins throughout the coastal mangrove swamps.
Every time a pipeline is bombed or facility attacked with credit for the incident taken by groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, one can’t help but wonder who these militants are and what their daily lives are like, not to mention the lives of the surrounding population struggling to survive on less than $1 a day.
The film provides a brief window into this harsh world and answers a few of these naïve questions, even if it leaves the viewer asking many more. “I had seen some footage of the Niger Delta militants, found it visually exciting and felt I could handle that level of risk, so I researched the story and realized it was very important,” Berends said in a statement.
A local militant chief grants Berends access to the region under the condition that he “only tell[s] what he sees; do not add, do not subtract,” which serves as a dramatic and somewhat frightening opening scene. The story then follows the lives of several local figures, including the “Godfather” Ateke Tom, a powerful militia leader. There is also an emotional scene early in the film in which a 22-year old villager named Mama gives birth with no modern medical assistance.
Though meant to be a one-sided depiction of life on the ground for the impoverished Niger Delta population, the film does not address the oil companies’ point of view. Berends seems to arrive at the opinion that the companies are getting rich producing oil and gas and polluting the environment with little regard for the local residents. While it’s tempting to paint the situation in stark black and white, the reality is far more complex and nuanced. The foreign companies operating in Nigeria are forced to deal with a federal government that can often be corrupt and inefficient, failing to adequately distribute the country’s resource wealth. Many of the local residents featured in the film appear to recognize the government’s role in their plight, and while there is some animosity toward the oil companies, most of the anger is directed at their government leaders.
All in all, the film does a great job at shedding light on a population struggling to obtain basic services like clean drinking water, roads, hospitals and schools while billions of dollars worth of oil and gas development infrastructure surrounds them. “Delta Boys” comes up a bit short on the larger picture and does not attempt to offer potential solutions, but that is not really its mission.