Sweet Crude

Black gold blues

Sandy Cioffi’s Sweet Crude documents the havoc wreaked by the oil industry in the Niger Delta


September 23, 2010


In November of 2005, filmmaker Sandy Cioffi travelled to southern Nigeria to document the opening of a library intended as a friendship gesture in a region scarred by ethnic warfare. What she saw there made her switch her plans entirely and turn her focus to the oily elephant dripping in the corner of the room. The Niger Delta is Africa’s biggest producer of petroleum, a commodity behind most of the country’s wealth, pollution and violence. Her film Sweet Crude (sweetcrudemovie. com) is the product of four years of research and interviews that brought Cioffi into close contact with the resistance movement that’s fighting for a say in how the oil companies use their land.

“It began as an attempt to record a group of good people doing a goodwill gesture but it was immediately strange to me that they needed volunteers in a place that’s producing billions of dollars worth of oil,” says Cioffi. During the shoot people she met urged her to document the conditions of the Delta: the transformation of white sand beaches into oily, muddy riverbanks, acid rain caused by natural gas fires, communities without schools or hospitals, and the violence of the army and private security agencies that’s regularly unleashed against the region’s frequent protests. Impressed by the determination of the Ogani people to resist what’s happening to their land, she made a decision to step back and let their voices shape the story she was telling. The film uses narration to bring the audience into her ambivalent journey away from journalistic objectivity as she began to campaign for the cause.

“You have to be honest: it gets very murky very quickly. I’m still not prepared to say that everything I did was the right thing to do, but I tried to make the most courageous choices I could,” she says.

Some of the most powerful moments of the film are interviews with activists who want to remain dedicated to the principle of non-violence but feel that the world isn’t listening.

“On an emotional level it broke me open that they wanted me to understand that they believe we, the West, have closed the window on their options. They believe we were responsible to pay attention before the guns came out.”

As the tension between the non-violent and the armed factions of the movement grew, Cioffi found herself in close quarters with the members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a group that has carried out kidnappings and attacks on oil pipelines. While those connections got her places no other journalist was able to reach, they also pushed the film in certain directions.

“When you’re in a place where there’s a militant organization running the waterways, in order for you to even be there safely someone had to give you permission to be there and the assumption is that you’re telling the story from their point of view.”

But the militants weren’t the only people to shape the film. The final chapter had to be changed after the whole crew were detained for seven days by the Nigerian government and their footage was confiscated. In the end, no organization comes out looking like they have their hands clean.

“I wanted to tell a story where everything is grey. In fact, the sky is so many different colours of grey because of the poison in the air that I used a special kind of filter on the camera so you can see more shades of grey than you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Cinema Politica is screening Sweet Crude this Monday September 27 at 7 p.m. in Concordias H-110 (1455 de Maisonneuve West). See http://www.cinemapolitica.org/ for details of Cinema Politicas 2010 season.

Montreal Mirror September 23, 2010 (this is the unedited text)


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