Sandy Cioffi, Tammie Sims, Sean Porter, Cliff Worsham and their Nigerian volunteer, Joel Bisina were arrested yesterday by members of the Joint Task Force in Oghara as they made to board a boat from the Sadita Jetty in Warri North LGA of Delta State. They have since been flown to Abuja, Nigeria's capital. No charges have been preferred against these film makers who are being labelled "Spies" by the Nigerian government.
Below is a statement by Sandy on the making of "Sweet Crude", a documentary that has put the team in trouble with Nigerian officials:
Sweet Crude – Director’s Statement by Sandy Cioffi
Nigeria. My first reaction was vague familiarity, but I couldn’t put my finger on any specifics. I thought maybe I remembered the musician King Sunny Ade was Nigerian. And then it hit me: Ken Saro Wiwa had been executed there. He had been the Nelson Mandela of Nigeria, defending the rights of his people, the Ogoni of the Niger Delta, against big oil. The dictator Abacha had ordered his death while the world community begged in vain, then watched helplessly. That was a decade ago, and it seemed—at the “first world”—that the story had died along with him. I had to Google it to be sure I had it right. And then I remembered an NPR story I’d heard more recently about Niger Delta women protesting on oil platforms and being beaten within an inch of their lives - literally putting their bodies on the line to make a statement maybe the world would finally hear: for all the wealth generated from their land, they were living in desperate poverty in a decimated environment. The deeper I went in reviewing Niger Delta events and issues, the more I understood just how high the current stakes at play there are.
I said yes.
I had been asked to travel to Nigeria with American non-profit Global Citizen Journey, to videotape a “citizen diplomacy” trip and the building of a library in a small Niger Delta village. The library was to be a place where people from previously warring tribes could share a new and thrilling resource. Nigerians and Americans would work side-by-side to build it and oversee its use.
In the past ten years, Nigeria had seen escalating interethnic conflict. Tribes had been pitted against each other, some believe intentionally, as they struggled to carve out the tiniest piece of the vast resource base created by the crude oil flowing from their land. Despite enormous profits for the oil companies and the Nigerian federal government, most villages still had no running water, electricity or health care. Villagers were not hired to work on the platforms. And traditional livelihoods like fishing and farming were in serious jeopardy as unregulated oil production took its toll on water and land. I learned that the library project was being partially funded by Chevron and that a student organization had made a substantial contribution to pay for the roof. I had a bunch of questions about that. I was to learn that questions are often the only viable response to the baffling complexity of most things Nigerian. Why did a group of students in the Niger Delta want to be associated with a community project put together by Americans with Chevron money? How was an organization of students from dirt-poor villages able to raise that amount of money? Did they hold a bake sale? Was Chevron’s involvement like throwing a tiny token bone to starving people? Or did it make sense to engage them in being a part of the solution in that flattened place? After all, with such a ubiquitous presence in the Delta, it seems like any reasonable plans to remediate the increasing violence and poverty have to include big oil. Or do they?
I packed my bags.
As our boats arrived in Oporoza, we were greeted by the entire population of the village and a flotilla of canoes decorated with banners proclaiming “Community not Conflict,” filled with women singing and dancing. At the welcoming ceremony, I noticed a large group of young men. They looked to be in their early twenties and were incongruously dressed in DKNY, Calvin Klein and True Religion jeans. Their tshirts identified them as members of the student group. I had a quick intuition they might be involved in activities beyond their studies and fundraising for library roofs. I suspected they were there in part to provide protection for us while we were in the “creeks,” an area considered dangerous and seldom visited by outsiders.
I would later learn that all of this and much more was true.
As a filmmaker, I had documented in Northern Ireland, Central America and South Africa. My instincts had been honed in places and situations in taut suspension between war and peace, or newly on one side or the other. I know when I’m not in Kansas anymore.
I had read about the “boys of the south south,” organized Niger Delta groups who were essentially developing an armed resistance to what they see as deeply threatening collusion between the Nigerian government, the military and the oil companies. Their demand is “resource control.” To the people of the Delta, this means new laws to govern the vast revenues being siphoned from their land along with the crude. Most existing laws were passed by illegal dictators and have not been reviewed since the beginning of the fledgling Nigerian democracy in 1999. As Niger Deltans began to realize they shared the same problems, the intertribal conflict of the past decade eased, creating an opening for the people of the area to focus on their real enemies. I had come to film the building of a library in a small African village. But I had unwittingly arrived at the headquarters of militancy in the Niger Delta—at the exact moment in time the militants were about to embark on a campaign of kidnapping oil workers to get media attention for their struggle. I had come to film the simple story of an American nonprofit hoping to catalyze change in an impoverished, illiterate region. But I soon realized the complicated, frightening truth that there had better be some solutions to the Niger Delta’s desperate issues in a hurry or long-term improvements will die on the vine. It seemed we were looking at a powder keg.
I returned home and the more I thought about it, the more stunned I was. How could this story be playing out in the most populous country in Africa, the world’s seventh largest oil exporter and arguably a strategic lynchpin in the stability of all of Western Africa—and not make the front page of every international newspaper? How could it be that this country with its highly visible history of the Biafran War and the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa was building toward full-on armed struggle—invisible to most of the world? And how is a volatile region that provides up to 20 percent of U.S. oil imports in a given year missing from discussions of foreign policy priorities? Sure, NGOs have been reporting on environmental damage and humanitarian issues in the Delta for years. But no one’s really paying attention. The egregious gas flaring in the Delta was even noted in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
But the importance of this material has not been recognized or explored.
In the meantime, the resistance began taking hostages. They were now known by the name MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). I knew them as students turned militants. Their activities attracted some media coverage, but most of it was sensationalist and lacked depth about the complex issues and what could be done to address them. I thought about the urgency of the situation and its substantial implications for Nigeria, Africa and the world. I thought about the village kids we had met and what would happen to them if the violence escalated. I thought about the fact that in this pregnant moment before a low level intensity struggle breaks into war or real peace talks—I knew the key players. I knew I had to make a documentary and make it immediately.
I packed my bags again. We filmed in Nigeria for a month. We interviewed most of the region’s stakeholders. Among the many things we learned was that the one thing the militancy will stand down for is the hope of true peace talks with a third-party presence to give them teeth. Suddenly the stakes were raised, my role as a filmmaker expanded. Could telling this story actually impact whether this war starts? If we throw a high beam spotlight on this moment and freeze it for the world to see…what then? Could the people in a position to make a difference be moved to act? I hold my breath wondering if this time, just maybe, an African tragedy could be averted.
Questions abound about the Delta. But for me the one that rises to the top continually is could we change it just by looking with a humane gaze? Documentary photographer James Natchwey has said, “If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and, if it is used well, it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.” I set out to make a movie about this place in this moment with this possibly quixotic hope.