The director of Our Brand is Crisis talks about her latest film, Big Men (which opens March 14), a documentary about an oil company that makes a potential $2.2 billion discovery off the coast of Ghana.
Big Men and Our Brand is Crisis are both cautionary tales about global capitalism centered on Americans trying to control major aspects of life in another country: the presidency of Bolivia in Crisis, and Ghana's newly discovered oil reserves in Big Men. Is that a theme you plan to keep exploring?
When I first got involved in documentary filmmaking fresh out of college, I had a little more confidence in my own capacity to change the world. I was really interested in the idea of getting Americans to think about how they are related to the rest of the world. As I have gotten older, my interests changed, I’ve changed, but I’ve remained consistently fascinated by the intersection of different ways of seeing. At the time that I finished Our Brand, oil prices were going though the roof. The price of oil was on everybody’s list. I didn’t have kids yet, and I was at the point in my life when I thought I could take on something kind of epic. The original idea was, I’m going to make a film about the oil business from inside the oil business.
At the same time, around the end of 2005, this militant movement popped up in Nigeria. These militants started kidnapping oil workers and blowing up pipelines and I thought to myself, there’s a movie there. How about I fly to Nigeria, I get access to an American oil company, and I film their experience inside this context? That would be really interesting, because there’s the collision of competing interests and a dramatic background.
I’m very interested, as a filmmaker, in working on subjects that I think are reflective of something fundamental about the way we’re living now. One of the things I just adore about Marcel Ophuls, who made The Sorrow and the Pity, is that you watch a film that he’s made 30 years later and it’s this amazing time capsule about the way people thought back then. My thrust isn’t so much as an advocacy filmmaker; I’m really more interested in portraits of the way people think and the way people live. Often I’m drawn to these very big international subjects, because I see them as being fundamental and very important.
You gain amazing access in your films. In Big Men, you were right there when the head of the oil company got a government official to assure him that any new rules they created for foreign companies wouldn’t apply to him. How do you get into those intimate spaces, and how do you get people to talk so freely around you?
There are a couple things. I’m very persistent. I ask a lot, and I don’t really give up. I mean, I give up when I know something’s impossible, but I don’t think many things are impossible. And there’s also the fact that, when I ask somebody if I can film with them, I’m very clear that the footage will be mine—that it’s my movie, that they’re not going to be involved with the cutting of it—but I’m also very clear about the fact that my intention is to be respectful. I’m not trying to make films that make someone look like a jerk. I’m not interested in gaining someone’s trust and then tearing it to shreds. I’m interested in intimate portraits that I think are honest.
My guess is that people sense that I’m sincere, because I am, and that I respect people’s limits. And that I’m interested very much in their perspective on things. A lot of people feel like they’re misunderstood or they’re not seen, and they want to share something about their achievements or their life. So the idea that a filmmaker is coming in and is actually going to listen? That’s sort of precious. The most difficult thing about access in my experience… well, there’s two things. There’s getting it in the first place, and the second thing is maintaining it when everything goes to hell in a hand basket. They’re two separate challenges. Ultimately, if you stick around long enough, things will go awry. They always do.
Do you think being a woman might help?
Of course! One of the oil guys at one point in the filming process joked about letting me do it because he liked having me put my hand up his shirt when I was putting on the microphone. And, you know, he was joking, but there’s some truth to that. Having a nice, interested woman around is more appealing to them than having a nice, interested man around. It definitely makes a difference.
And maybe it’s easier for you to seem nonthreatening and sympathetic to somebody who’s feeling defensive—
Oh, sure. I have to say, though, just as an aside: I think men get asked very rarely, “Do you think it made a difference that you were a man?” Of course, as a woman, you’re going into a man’s world. In some ways, that makes your life easier and in some ways it makes your life harder. For example, the militants in the movie. They don’t traditionally allow women into their camps because of religious reasons. When I first tried to get access to the militants, I was traveling through the [Niger] Delta with another journalist. I remember him saying to me: “What are you going to do if you can’t get access because you’re a woman?” I thought to myself, “Well, that’s not going to happen!” But he was right: on the page, it looked unlikely that I would be allowed to go sleep inside of a militant camp for an extended period of time. I wasn’t asking to just come in and take photographs. I was asking to come in and stick around for a while. But I grew up with a single mom who was a corporate lawyer, sort of post women’s lib, during women’s lib, something like that—in the 70s. I just was never raised to think of myself as less than or not capable because I was a woman. I don’t look at that as an impediment ever.
No. But I was actually suggesting that it might be an advantage for the kinds of films you’re making. People are often more comfortable talking to women about their feelings, I think.
That’s another thing that connects these two movies. Both of them are about people who aren’t exactly easily wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They’re about going into intimate spaces with people who you normally don’t see in an intimate way. And certainly the fact that I’m a woman helps with that. Big time.
How many people come with you when you’re shooting? Do you do all of your own sound and cinematography or do you go in with a team?
There is some material in the film that I shot myself. But the grand majority of the film was shot by somebody else, and I did sound. So nine times out of 10, there are two of us, and a few times it’s just me.
That’s amazing. It’s a beautifully shot film.
Yeah, the DP did an incredible job. His name is Jonathan Furmanski—he also lives in Brooklyn. Several other DPs worked on the film as well. Nelson Hume, Kyle Kibbe, and John Foster. They did great work too. Jonathan has a phenomenal eye for light and framing. He was always drawn to the most compelling frame.
Brad Pitt produced Big Men. How did that happen, and what did it let you do that you couldn't have otherwise?
As I mentioned, I was running around the Niger Delta trying to figure things out in late 2006. At the time, there was this email address that all the journalists and documentary folks were writing to in order to get in touch with the militants. I used to joke that it was the email of the publicist of the militants. I was traveling with Sebastian Junger, who was writing a piece for Vanity Fair. He had been writing to this email address trying to get access to the militants, but apparently they didn’t know who he was and they really didn’t know about Vanity Fair so they kept saying no. They had been saying the same thing to me. Eventually, he gets this email where apparently the publicist of the militants had looked him up on the Internet and figured out that he’s actually a very accomplished person who has done a whole lot, so he writes back and says, “I will give you the access you want; just send me a signed copy of your book.”
I thought, “Ok, that is what matters. I can do that.” I decided we had to bring on some well-respected, well-recognized producer to legitimize our presence. So we went to Brad Pitt and he said yes, which was incredible. You asked how it helped: it just helped open doors, and it helped make people take us seriously. It definitely helped get the movie made; there’s no question about that.
The member of the GNPC who said the problem is deciding how to share the wealth—
Oh, yeah. I loved that interview!
Yeah. I felt like he summed up your whole story when he said the question is “who you see your own as.”
That’s exactly right! That’s the most important line in the movie! That’s exactly right.
Do you think the corruption and financial inequity that you show in your movie, which has crippled Nigeria since its oil was discovered, can be avoided in Ghana if the people in power see the Ghanaian people as “their own” and use their oil money to benefit them? Or is the problem that the really huge profits are being made by the foreign corporations that are drilling the oil, so even if the government uses its money for the public good it won’t be enough?
There are several levels of problems, right? The last card in the movie says the foreign investors in the first year received over $2 billion and the Ghanaian government received about $444 million. Well, the grand majority of that $444 million ended up being used to pay back costs that the GNPC had to pay for building the field and for running the field. So it actually goes back to the foreign oil companies, because costs have been carried by those companies over time. So there’s a problem that has to do with basic percentages, and that’s one of the themes of the movie. And then there’s a problem that has to do with individuals—with individuals looking out for their own, as you say.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in Ghana. If people reading this are interested in knowing more, there’s a fantastic website about this by the Public Interest & Accountability Committee of Ghana. They’ve published at least three reports on exactly where the money is coming from and where it’s gone. It’s incredibly rare to have that level of transparency.
Has Big Men been shown in Ghana or Nigeria? If so, who saw it? And what was their reaction?
It has not been shown in Ghana or Nigeria yet. My excuse is that I had two babies while I was making the film, and running off to Nigeria is not as easy as it once was.
How old are your children now?
Three and 16 months. One of them was born while I was still shooting and one was born right before the world premier, right before we did the sound edit. I would very much like to figure out a good way to screen it in both places where it will be shown to people who can talk about it and perhaps integrate it into their work and lives—where it might actually make a difference.
I got mad at the consultants in Our Brand is Crisis—including James Carville, whom I had always liked very much—and I found the head of Kosmos surprisingly sympathetic, though an oil man looking to make billions of dollars by drilling in a foreign land is not the sort of person that a person like me usually empathizes with. Is that just me, or are you consciously setting out to undermine your audience’s preconceptions?
That was entirely deliberate. It was the product of an enormous amount of thought. When I finished Our Brand, it was really well-received, and I was really happy with all the praise it got, but I was disturbed by how quickly people felt they could condemn the people in the movie. When I was making the film, I had spent all this time trying to stay open, so I was asking myself a lot of questions about what could I have done differently as a director to make it more difficult for people to write these guys off. Because I feel like when you can condemn people easily, it allows you to distance yourself from the subject.
I also think it’s more emotionally gratifying, in certain ways, to be able to feel something very strong and clear. Murkiness is… murky. With this film, I was aware that 90 percent of the audience was going to walk into the theater ready to hate the main characters. That was something I had talked about with them. It was something I thought about the entire time I was filming and editing. You know, they didn’t hire me. They didn’t pay me. I’m not related to any of them; they’re not my best buddies. And I certainly don’t feel like I was co-opted. I don’t think the film is a whitewashing of what they do or gives them an easy ride. Managing to do both of those things was the challenge. How do you simultaneously allow people to feel sympathy, and at the same time not give the characters in the film an easy ride?
How do you know when it’s time to stop filming a movie like this? You had a turning point when Kosmos went public that made for a good place to stop, but there were other places where you could have stopped.
Your job as a filmmaker is easier if there is some inherent arc in the timeline. In a campaign film, it’s super easy. You have the campaign, and somebody wins and somebody loses, and you have the aftermath. You can predict that as the structure of the film before you shoot a frame. In a film like this, you don’t know what the contest is necessarily. You don’t even know if there will be a contest.
One of the big questions people have when they see the film is, is Ghana going to benefit? When I started, I was willing to spend a good chunk of my time on this movie—I thought it would take five years—but I wasn’t willing to spend the next 15 years on it. I knew I wasn’t going to have time to answer the fundamental question of what’s going to happen in Ghana. So I decided to focus entirely on the development of the field—everything that happens before the oil gets pulled out of the ground.
There’s actually a whole different part of the movie I filmed that didn’t make it into the movie, because I was hedging my bets. If the Ghana story hadn’t really been a story, I was going to have to make a more meta film about big issues. I have beautiful footage of the US Navy in both Ghana and Nigeria, training local navies to protect their oil fields, but that stuff got cut out because there’s no room for another layer in the film. It’s pretty dense already.
So now I have some questions about Brooklyn.
Oh, good. I am such a convert. I would never move back to Manhattan, ever. I get off the subway when I come from the city and it’s like relief. We lived on Fifth Avenue between 13th and 14th forever. I came to New York as a grad student at Columbia University. I lived on the Upper West Side and I lived in the East Village, and then I moved with my husband right near Union Square and lived there for a really long time. Between 1996 and the end of 2013 I was living in Manhattan.
Where are you now?
What do you love about it?
I just love my neighborhood. There’s still an amazing blend of people there. There’s the Italian community and there are these newcomers who are all hanging out at the Smith Canteen. I’m sure there’s, like, tension there, but there’s also a kind of wonderful diversity, and I love that. I love how neighborhood-y it is. People say hi to each other and know their neighbors, and there’s a real sense of living in a community that’s close.
I’ve tried to love Park Slope as much as I love Carroll Gardens. I’ve walked Park Slope trying to love it as much, and I’ve really tried to figure out why I don’t. I think it has something to do with the size of the buildings, and the size of the streets. There’s just something that feels really intimate about [Carroll Gardens]. But it’s not un-cosmopolitan. It’s like how I imagine the West Village maybe felt many, many years ago: this lovely community of people that runs the gamut from architects and lawyers to artists and bakers. It’s got a real economic mix, too—though I guess that’s changing now that real estate prices are going through the roof. And there are great bakeries. I love the bakeries.