Rachel Boynton’s Big Men begins with a quote from Milton Friedman, the economist (and advisor to Ronald Reagan) whose neoliberal theories have had a profound influence on the global economy since the 1980s: “Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow that’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.” This statement is certainly true of the film’s subjects, a collection of politicians, businessmen, and citizens who all have a stake in the development of Ghana’s Jubilee oil field. Boynton seems to be asking whether pursuing those “separate interests” at the expense of the people of Ghana, or even at the expense of their own associates, results in a positive gain for society.
In 2007, soon after oil was discovered off the coast of Ghana, Boynton began following Kosmos Energy, a Dallas-based oil company, and its CEO Jim Musselman. Given that oil had never before been discovered in Ghana, Musselman, backed by two Wall Street investment firms, managed to secure the rights to extract the country’s bitumen on extremely favorable terms. A year later, the global recession hit the marketplace and the price of oil bottomed out, leaving the Jubilee development in flux. Boynton followed each partner as they fought for their slice of an ever-shrinking pie, and by providing interviews and perspectives from most of the concerned parties (Kosmos, the Wall Street firms, and the Ghanaian government), she reveals just how much influence corporate interests have on public wellbeing. Rarely are Ghana’s people a part of the debate, a point highlighted by Boynton’s contrasting of Kosmos’s flashy Wall Street debut (valued at $6 billion on its first day) with a shot of poor Ghanaians rooting through a dumpster for things to sell. When a conference is held in Ghana to debate the role of the oil development, Boynton follows Musselman as he tracks down government representatives to make sure they haven’t been influenced by a Norwegian delegate who suggests higher tax rates for foreign developers.
As you might expect, this moment reveals the influence of wealth on policy decision. More remarkable than this demonstration of corporate greed is the way Boynton shows how this decision, to lowball the Ghanaian government on tax rates, occurs without a thought to the effect it might have on the population of Ghana. In several talking-head interviews, various well-heeled white men in suits, both from Kosmos and their Wall Street backers, calmly and reasonably explain that it’s a simple economic matter of supply and demand; it was risky and expensive to explore in a country where oil has never been found, so Kosmos deserves a good deal. The idea that such an economic process might be bad for the country seemingly never occurs to them.
As a counterpoint to the story of Kosmos in Ghana, Boynton intercuts Musselman’s story with scenes from the neighboring Nigeria, where widespread corruption and corporate exploitation has turned the Niger Delta into a dystopian nightmare of environment-trampling oil developments and eco-terrorism. Oil developments along the Delta are rampant with “flaring,” a hazardous process in which natural gas runoff from oil extraction is burned rather than harvested for reasons of cost efficiency. The result is a horrific perpetual daytime in affected areas; huge flickering flames light up the night sky, evoking those terrifying images of Kuwait’s burning oil fields during the Gulf War. Boynton keenly captures the horror of these images from the villages on the Delta that are forced to live in this environment, perpetually surrounded by flames, smoke, and the resultant falling of acid rain. Seen in contrast to Ghana, Nigeria stands as a cautionary tale for any country delving into oil development for the first time. Eco-terrorism in the Delta is rampant, committed both by anti-government militants and by locals stealing oil for sale on the black market. Boynton interviews militants who, having had their livelihoods as farmers destroyed by the pollution of the oil industry, have taken to eco-terrorism for their own “separate interests;” an effort to take some control over an industry that ruined their lives.
No one corporation or person plans to trample over the wellbeing of the Ghanaian people, but as the story of the development progress, the breadth of Boynton’s research shows how it will occur regardless. As various self-interested groups jockey over the massive profits that can be brought in by the oil trade, the people of Ghana, or Nigeria, with no money to represent themselves in a project worth billions of dollars, fail to have an influence on their own fate. At one point in 2008, less than 50 percent of Nigeria’s oil developments were operational, belying the idea that the pursuit of “separate interests,” or greed, is good for anyone’s bottom line.