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The People's Story of Oil in the Niger Delta

An interview with filmaker Sandy Cioffi on her documentary Sweet Crude

by Esther Hsieh Dominion Stories

Documentary filmaker Sandy Cioffi//courtesy Sandy Cioffi
Documentary filmaker Sandy Cioffi//courtesy Sandy Cioffi

Also posted by ehsieh:

Sandy Cioffi is an American filmmaker who recently released her courageous documentary Sweet Crude, a feature length film that tells the human story of the people of the Niger Delta, revealing some devastating realities of the resource war in this region. I met with Sandy when she came to town for her Vancouver screening of Sweet Crude at the World Community Film Festival in January.

I prepared an interview with her for the Vancouver Co-op Radio program Redeye, and I explored with her some of the themes in her film.

Sandy Cioffi on how she came to make her documentary Sweet Crude...

I was hired by an American non-profit organization to film this group of Americans going to help out [in the Niger Delta by building a library] and it all seemed perfectly fine. I mean I wasn't completely naïve, I had done some research and it seemed like the communities in the Niger Delta were on the better end of the oil [according] to the media I was reading in 2005, [and that things were getting] better.  

Not only is that not true, but things have got so much worse, [despite] people organizing and doing everything you can imagine to ask the world community to pay attention to their plight, as the world community is consuming their resources. So as soon as I arrived in the village of Ambrosia and saw that what I saw there bore no resemblance to the story I was hearing in American media, I knew I had to go back; it wasn't right to make a piece about people in an almost benevolent way - although that's not what they intended - but why would the people in the Niger Delta need a library when they are producing millions and millions of dollars in oil revenue? Obviously something has gone wrong.  

The real turning point for me was one woman; a mother in a community called Jones Creek. We had been told by Chevron that they no longer flared on the ground because that was one of the more egregious crimes in the world community and in fact the International Monetary Fund came down hard on Chevron. Chevron swore that they no longer flared on the ground. And this mother in Jones Creek, as soon as she saw me with my camera, [she] physically grabbed me and pulled me a mile in off the waterway and showed me where the gas flaring was occurring, literally right off the ground: gas flaring that has caused third degree burns for many children. I can tell you the number of young people I saw with third degree burns was shocking. And as soon as I saw that and filmed it, this mother was begging me to come back with the camera; I knew that I would do a feature length documentary.  

On the environmental impact of oil in the Niger Delta...

Oil was really first discovered in the [Niger Delta]in the late 1950s so it's about a 50 year period ,and in those 50 years the life expectancy has gone from the late 60s, in the oil producing communities, to 40. That's just one of many difficult statistics [athough] it's hard to really move people with statistics.   But visually for the crew when we got there, we would see these really unusual looking ominous gray clouds that were, as we found out later, filled with acid rain: acid rain that is a consequence of the ubiquitous gas flaring. There is gas flaring all along the Delta and in fact the largest amount of gas flaring done on the planet is done in two places: Russia and Nigeria. It's so substantial that you can see it from outer space photography. You see this little band of yellow light in the centre of Africa and that's the gas flaring.  

That's just one of the environmental issues. Others are mangroves that are gone [due to] the dredging of sweet and salt water, the poison of the oil spills: we could spend the entire time talking about the environment.  

On the distribution of oil revenues... 

There are a few people who have managed to get their hand in the pie, but the average person – a woman and her family of a Delta village is in fact one of the poorest people in Africa. The poverty levels in the communities in the Niger Delta are as low as it gets in Africa and there are many many reasons why this has happened. But one of the reasons that is important to note is that the British left their colonial rule in Nigeria at exactly the same moment that the corporations established theirs, so there colonial template was just replaced with a corporate template.  So that the ways the dictators were playing ethnic groups against each other was unfortunately a convenient tactic that was continued under the rule of oil.  

On years of peaceful protests against oil companies evolving to militancy...  

I tried very hard to be careful to neither judge it nor promote it because it's certainly the case that it's easy for me, a white woman living in North America to say that I'm for non-violence. I mean what does that mean? The stakes of my everyday life are not the stakes of their lives and I've come to understand that when I'm in places like the Niger Delta, Northern Ireland and Nicaragua that if I watched my grandmother - and this is literally the life experience of many of these young men – if I watched my grandmother go out in a canoe to get her daily food and be raped by Nigerian military officers because she's in an oil producing community and they want to continue to dehumanize the people there, I don't know what I would do.  

If I were organized, marching and going to international conferences calling on the UN, and if I did that for a decade with no response from  American media, but the moment I pick up a gun and put on a mask and bam - CNN is there, Reuters is there, BBC, ABC news. They all want to tell the story of the Niger Delta all of the sudden. Of course they don't want to tell the whole story of the Niger Delta, all they want to do is say terrorist, terrorist.  

But I try very hard to [portrait] the reality that I saw on the ground [which] was a people using a larger strategy of non-violence for a long time. And within that strategy all kind of tactics including the attempt to get international media attention [was used], but it was unsuccessful. The international media attention came when they took up arms.  

So I'm just asking the audience to take that in and ask ourselves what our responsibility is to even leave a window open for political solutions in places where the stakes are that high. Don't we after all bear responsibilities for whether or not that can be resolved non-violently?   

On the mainstream media’s coverage of the Niger Delta story...

[I worked with] ABC Nightline and World News Now [for] a reporter named Brian Ross. His producers had me play the role of fixer and I felt that was terrific because I thought they were going to do the deeper story. So I went ahead and filmed an interview, I filmed the Nigerian side of the interview, Brian Ross filmed the telephone side in New York. I brought the footage on my way back into New York and I again was hopeful that  [they would air] footage of a young man unmasked saying I am a militant in the Niger Delta but this is why I took up guns, this is what we're asking for in the world community.  

Not only did Brian Ross not run any of that footage, he instead went with a story that used terror, terrorist or terrorism 43 times, and called MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) the new African terrorist threat. So it was really pretty devastating all around and unfortunately is a typical example of what passes as journalism in the current and electronic media environment in the US.  

On what she risked to make this documentary...  

For as much as that can perhaps suggest that I or my crew are brave and deserve to be lauded, what we went through was literally infinitesimal  compared to the conditions of life of [the] people [of the Niger Delta] and people frankly all over the world on the other side of resource control issues.   From my point of view – there is no more compelling question than whether or not we can live in a world with any kind of human rights standards when the alchemy of guns and oil are what they are. So I didn't so much sit with a calculator and say am I willing to risk all those things to tell this story, but I do know that my commitment in general to independent documentary is that it's of course the most voiceless people that continue to be trampled around the world and those are the places where the cameras don't go.  

There really aren't any news agencies that go [to the Niger Delta] for more than 48 hours [and they are] dropped [off] in a helicopter and they stay safe. And if you're going to tell the story of people for whom the stakes are that high then the stakes have to be that high for you too. If you wear the bullet proof vest and the guest pass, then you're not really going to tell their story.  

So it's not at all that I mean to purport that I have any sort of false modestly, it's that I really felt that even when I was in prison, that what I was experiencing was next to nothing. Nigerian journalists are beaten up daily if they tell any real stories. So I was unfortunately in a long line of thousands of people who have to risk that if the stories will ever be told.  

For more information about the film Sweet Crude and the situation in the Niger Delta visit: To hear the Redeye interview with Sandy Cioffi, download the podcast from:

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Hi Esther,

My name is Ophelia Ng and I am a high school student from Toronto. I was reading one of your articles on bumbing cars in Paris that was published in Globe & Mail and thought you will be the perfect interviewee for my media interview. I just have a few questions to ask you and hopefully it will not take up your time.

The questions are the following:
1. What made you want to pursue your specific career as a reporter/writer?
2. Can you talk about your job's responsibilities?
3. What are the difficulties in your specific field as a reporter/writer?
4. What things do you enjoy doing for your profession?
5. Is there any other field within the media that your interested in?


Ophelia Ng

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