When director Sandy Cioffi and her crew arrived in Oporoza, Nigeria in 2005, it was to film the construction of a library. However, they found the oil-rich region of the Niger Delta and the people living in it at the mercy of oil companies. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, crude oil accounts for 95 per cent of Nigeria’s exports. But since 2006, there have been 2,400 recorded oil spills in the area. Fishing and hunting are distant memories. Worst of all, no one was talking about it.
“The mainstream media had abandoned the tale,” said Cioffi. She quickly gathered a crew and went back to Nigeria to make Sweet Crude.
“Many residents begged us to tell their story,” said producer and writer Leslye Wood. The film follows the struggle of residents in the Niger Delta to regain control of their land and communities from the oil industry. The crew’s return to Nigeria in 2006 also coincided with a new militarist movement in a area which had seen decades of peaceful protests. Cioffi said this movement is directly related to oil: “The relationship with guns and oil is unlike anything since the Crusades.”
Sweet Crude describes the situation in the Niger Delta as a powder keg, with the possibility of exploding in violence that would affect the political stability of Africa as well as global economic markets.
The situation in Nigeria remains sadly under-reported outside of Africa. “Before the trip, I didn’t even know oil was produced in Nigeria,” admitted Wood. According to Cioffi, the big problem is people being intentionally kept from the story. “If people knew, they wouldn’t pump gas into their cars with reckless abandon.”
However, people are beginning to pay attention. “We’ve learned in the U.S. in the midst of the recent oil spill, there were covert things, coverups. Stuff can happen even in our own backyard,” reported Wood.
Cioffi learned about the power of storytelling from making Sweet Crude. “Telling the story is sometimes as important as writing to a congressman,” she states. Wood wants viewers to realize that consequences of oil drilling in the area are more far-reaching than Africa, and can lead to serious environmental problems. “We like to say, “We have to change everything. We have to change the way we think about the earth as a whole.’ That’s a hard message to announce to an audience,” said Wood.
Knowing the story behind oil changes everything. “I owned a beautiful old car with an old engine,” revealed Cioffi. “Now I drive a Prius.” Even though the movie is a difficult sell for screenings, viewers are beginning to catch on to the ideas. “As difficult as it is, there are many audiences who want to talk about it,” said Cioffi. “That’s pretty exciting.”
Wood expressed hope that people will see the beauty they found in the people of the Niger Delta. “They have not only endured but lived life despite so much destruction around them. We hope people will be moved by the characters, and see them as individuals and not a political cause.”
Sweet Crude will be playing Cinema Politica Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. in H-110.