[28 May 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“We are telling all expatriates to leave Nigeria, not only the Niger Delta,” asserts a man with a scarf over his face. “We will take lives, we will crumble the economy mercilessly.” The man behind him also covers his face, and wears an ammunition belt over his shoulder. Self-declared freedom fighters against both the government and the multinational oil companies in Nigeria, they’re framed at the start of Delta Boys by a CNN report on “Blood and Oil,” a report that helpfully includes subtitles, to ensure you appreciate the vehemence of the invective. Intrigued by their apparent underdog status, filmmaker Andrew Berends narrates, “I took my camera to Nigeria and tried to meet them.” And so he does: a next scene shows his point of view as he approaches a fighter, wearing shorts and flipflops, his gun prominently displayed. Assured that Berends is a “brother to Niger Delta,” the man warns him, “Say only what you see. Don’t add or subtract.”
It’s impossible to say what’s “subtracted” in Delta Boys, of course, as any film must compose and edit recorded images. Still, what this one seems to say and see is harrowing: the oil companies have ravaged the land, polluted the waters, and exploited the local populations, who live in poverty and without hope of movement. As one young father notes of the fighters who necessarily live apart from the villages, “If they are fighting government, we have no problem. If they are fighting companies, we have no problem. The government we have, they are not doing anything, nothing. They are doing nothing.”
Such frustration shapes more than a few interactions captured by Berends’ camera. Screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 29 May, followed by a Q&A with Berends, the documentary tracks his meetings with a camp leader, Ateke Tom, as well as a young soldier, 21-year-old Chima, and, to a lesser extent, a 23-year-old mother living in a village that will be evacuated. Introduced as she’s giving birth, Ateke Tom watches over his fighters like they’re so many kids at sleepover camp, arbitrating conflicts and deciding which targets to strike. The fighters expect pain: when Chima and a couple of his fellows leave their post unguarded one evening, they’re subjected to a ritual flogging, laid out on the ground and whipped while they scream and writhe in pain.
If it’s not clear what lessons they learn, or how they might change their behavior, they express their pain vividly. So too does young Mama, plainly resilient as well as burdened, her daily life a struggle for survival that can never be quite sorted out. Her father advises her to hasten her birthing process by drinking a traditional mixture of roots and black pepper: as she wails inside a hut (the curtain at the doorway providing no barrier against the sounds from within), so do the women surrounding her: birth is hard here, much like the life that follows. Mama’s mother worries for her, noting that the village is too far from any sort of official facility, and so they rely on people in the village, who “know how to deliver here.”
Chima’s story is more detailed, if only because he speaks to the camera repeatedly, using it as a kind of diary. His story serves as a thematic link between those of Mama and Ateke Tom, she representing the village life he’s left behind and Tom the endless struggle before him. Chima remembers how he came to the camp (Ateke Tom helped him leave prison, then trained him to be a fighter), even as his mother, back home some 200 miles away, worries that he may be dead. That Berends and his film become means for her to see and then communicate with her son underlines what’s at stake for the fighters, and also the difficulties they face daily. Chima’s mother prays in church for her boy’s safe return; he maintains faith in Ateke Tom, four years into a hard life in the forest (“I love that man so much,” he proclaims, “I love Ateke”).
In these different stories, the film reveals the complexities of being an “underdog” in the struggle against the utterly exploitative and abusive multinationals: violence becomes a form of communication, different but no less effective than the film (“Tell him,” one relative says to Berends on watching his footage of Chima, “That his family wants to see him immediately”). Media wreak their own violence, not so bloody as the fighters’, but damaging and lasting. The CNN story and other news reports cited here reduce the conflict to questions of money, and at his own press conference, Ateke Tom presents himself carefully. At his camp, he sits surrounded by reporters’ microphones and tape recorders held near to his face, in order to declare the fighters’ demands for “development resource control.” He has talking points and guns. The government and the multinationals (whose pipelines and signage pock the landscape) have everything else. “How can you have peace if you don’t disarm?” asks one reporter. Ateke Tom promises that when h sees “sincerity” on the part of his opponents, he will disarm. He assures his questioner hat he will recognize this when and if he sees it.
As good as Ateke Tom is at speaking for others, Delta Boys submits that communications remain confounded, that even when Ateke Tom and other militant leaders purport to negotiate with the government and the corporate participants, they don’t secure the basic needs—the right to potable water, for instance—that most of the “boys” seek for the families and communities they haven’t seen in years. As profitable as the region proves to be for foreign companies, it remains a hardship for residents. Even after the negotiations, Chima remains at camp, his own status—as underdog, as refugee—unchanged. “I have friends, but I have no friends,” he says, “We are brothers in business.” Boys and young men with all kinds of masks on their faces perform for the camera. “As our faces are different, our minds are different,” Chima observes. “That’s why I have to walk alone.”