The Project begins like an earnest television documentary about the Somali pirate crisis. In interviews, an Indian man and woman remember that their friends were held hostage by the pirates who’ve been in business for a decade, picking off the mammoth, unguarded vessels that use the waters off the Horn of Africa as what one expert terms “a nautical superhighway.” The problem is then analyzed in crisp, PowerPoint-like bulletins: billions of dollars lost to the global economy each year; ransoms paid out to raggedy outlaws in skiffs; Somalia’s dissent into lawlessness, and the UN’s apparent inability to intervene.
Then, The Project identifies what seems to be a solution. American and South African mercenaries funded by the United Arab Emirates have been training locals to create the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF). Answering directly to the president of Puntland (an autonomous region of northeastern Somalia), the PMPF is designed to go after the pirates’ coastal bases. It’s presented here as the only possible answer. This according to Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s description of Somalia as “A continuous loop Mad Max movie,” for which his soldiers-for-hire appear so many order-imposing Mel Gibsons. UN monitor Matt Bryden provides the sole, somewhat hapless voice for those concerned about mercenaries creating new armies who could then turn around and become just another chaos-causing militia.
The film’s directors, TV journalists Adam Ciralsky and Shawn Efran, make their point in boldface type: the PMPF might be imperfect, but it’s better than nothing. They present the case by way of Roger Carstens, a Special Forces veteran who’s been studying and implementing counterinsurgency tactics for decades in the worst corners of the world. He tags along with the PMPF as an observer armed only with his camera and reality TV-ready quips. (A bit of context: Carstens and Ciralsky were also behind the controversial and short-lived hunting-war-criminals reality show, The Wanted.)
Of course, none of the problems or solutions offered here is this simple. In between interviews with the trainers—a likable gang of gruffly jovial South Africans, some of whom hail from the infamous mercenary outfit Executive Outcomes—and Prince (so square-jawed and well-spoken he looks unsure whether to lead a corporate takeover or fast-rope out of a Black Hawk into a Taliban stronghold), The Project shows hundreds of skinny Somali recruits training in a desolate compound. It’s a rough task for the trainers, with malnutrition and khat addiction rampant among the recruits. Their first mission, a several-hundred-miles drive through the desert towards an enemy who knows they are coming, might be best described as poorly planned. Later, some unexplained tensions between PMPF soldiers and trainers boil over into a full-scale mutiny, some of which is caught in harrowing fashion by Carstens’ handheld camera. Tellingly, except for one charismatic Somali-American from Atlanta, none of the PMPF men is interviewed at any length.
Produced by the same elbow-throwing conservative media group behind the similarly thought-provoking, if simplistic, UN Me, The Project is advocates for shoving the United Nations out of the way and allowing military contractors to bring a specifically profitable peace to lawless hinterlands. During the post-film discussion, Bryden contended that NATO and other international groups have done far more to fight Somali pirates than the PMPF, which he claimed is now being used by the Puntland government to suppress dissidents. Carstens made another case, that the PMPF, as rough-edged as they may be, provide a better homegrown solution to the problem than “stacking up” American brigades who cause more problems than they solve. If only the filmmakers had bothered to talk more with those Africans whom the film presents as the answer.
Another sell-out crowd caught Rachel Boynton’s first feature documentary since Our Brand is Crisis, her 2005 excoriation of American guns-for-hire who tried to export their brand of business-friendly neoliberalism to Bolivia. In Big Men, she tackles one of the issues as damaging to western and central Africa as piracy and internecine warfare are to Somalia: the resource curse.
The film starts with the 2007 discovery of the Jubilee field, a massive oil deposit off the coast of Ghana. Enter Kosmos Energy, a small American wildcat operation backed by private equity firms Blackstone and Walter Pincus; the company lobbies the Ghanaian government for a license to drill there. Given the incredible amount of infrastructure needed, Kosmos must spend money to prepare for drilling, even before it has a deal in place. The 2008 election in Ghana produces a new president, John Atta Mills, who is less enamored of the deal Kosmos had been forging with his predecessor.
Boynton structures the film to present the negotiations among competing interests. Frequently heard asking questions from off-screen, she achieves impressive access to both the Ghanaian politicians and Kosmos oilmen, the latter appearing impressively nonchalant, given the onerous vig surely being demanded by their private equity backers. At one point, though, Kosmos’ seemingly affable CEO Jim Musselman reveals his frustrations, as he claims that his company deserves handsome rewards for taking on risk, while he also decries the “greedy” politicians who want more money, ostensibly for their country. It’s a brief moment, but the double standard he assumes is breathtaking.
Boynton’s film shows other tensions too, including those between the specifics of the incipient Ghana oil deal and the effects of other discoveries of large oil deposits on nearby Nigeria. The consequences are disturbing, illustrated by footage of decrepit towns, people burrowing in garbage, and pools of spilled crude blackening the ground. Boynton interviews masked rebels in the Delta who whip down narrow canals in speedboats while popping off rounds with AK-47s, when not blowing up pipelines and assaulting refineries. The film draws a sharp contrast between this brutal scrum of warring tribes in Nigeria and the seemingly more cohesive political structure in Ghana, a contrast that serves as a caution, that oil money and corporate interests pose dangers even to Ghana, one of the few stable democracies in western Africa.
Big Men shapes its alternately dry and dire subject matter with a consistently keen sense of art, boosted by Jonathan Furmanski’s skilled cinematography. But while Boynton highlights a dramatic crossroads facing Ghana, her film doesn’t suggest a resolution for the continued maneuvering between Ghanaian politicians and an increasingly desperate Kosmos. It’s impossible to know, now, whether Ghana is destined to become Nigeria, Part Two.