What I wanted was closing footage for my documentary about oil production in the Niger Delta. What I got was a week in a Nigerian military prison.

By Sandy Cioffi ’84

I really thought it was typical harassment, no big deal. But then the junior officer ordered me and my film crew to get out of the boat, a step in the Nigerian military checkpoint routine we’d never experienced before. As we climbed up a rusted chain to an imposing concrete jetty, residents were pulling up and dropping off cases of bottled water as “gifts” — aka the toll to pass by without incident on the river. The soldiers sell it to nearby village residents — a creative way of requiring bribes without exchanging cash.
    We were in the Niger Delta of Nigeria to continue filming for Sweet Crude, a documentary chronicling the devastating effects of oil production in the region — specifically, the systematic theft seof vast oil riches from under the feet of a population now living in abject poverty and environmental decimation. On the day we were ordered out of the boat, we were traveling to a village called Egbema, to film a woman who can no longer fish in waters that had fed her family for more than 70 years. Ironically, this area is one of the few that has experienced relatively little of the environmental damage that oil production has caused in most of the delta. Until recently, the area had been spared by the luck of the draw — this part of the river had just not been dredged yet. But now, the bunkering — in which oil stolen from cracked pipes is placed on renegade tankers — has overtaken this corridor of the river. Massive oil spills are an everyday occurrence. It’s commonly known that the JTF (Joint Task Force – Nigerian military) are complicit in the bunkering; the huge tankers must clear their official checkpoints both coming and going.
    I’ll never know why the JTF stopped us. We were clearly a ragtag group of Americans — hardly an upscale boat of oil company executives or anyone of means or “importance.” Were they actually looking for us? We didn’t have our cameras out of their bags at the time. But to the JTF, any Americans knowing details of the abuses in the delta are a danger, particularly if they’re savvy to the Nigerian military’s involvement in bunkering, kidnapping, and garden-variety crime. The military blames all illicit activity on the militants — MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) — and the United States seems to buy that line. Any official statements regarding the situation in the Niger Delta are riddled with concern about the “criminal” militancy, some even suggesting that they are terrorists. And the United States supports the Nigerian military against this increasing insurgency with hardware and military intelligence. This militancy does have criminal elements, but it is also a political resistance movement. I have found no official State Department expression of concern for the root causes of the unrest.
    For two-and-a-half years, I’ve been chronicling the protracted struggle for justice for the Niger Delta as it shifts toward a more urgent conflict. As the oil companies’ extraction methods continue to ravage the environment and the Nigerian government continues to “divert” funds dedicated for development, the Nigerian military has deployed troops to occupy the villages and contain the resistance. This situation has drawn paltry media attention. Since the nonviolent Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed for criticizing the government’s oil policy in 1995, the only stories about the delta you’ll find in mainstream media involve MEND kidnapping oil workers.  (Unfortunately, the militants’ shift from political demands to violent tactics worked in terms of getting them some coverage.)

Above: A Niger Delta villager named Janet prepares containers of gasoline to sell on the black market. With other income options such as fishing wiped out by the environmentally devastating oil-production industry, many of the region’s residents resort to this dangerous activity to feed their families. (Photo by Sandy Cioffi)

Top: As companies burn off natural gas during oil production, the flares produce significant greenhouse-

gas emissions (and millions of dollars go up in smoke). Many who live in the midst of Nigeria’s oil-producing communities complain of chronic health and environmental problems associated with the gas
flares. The acid rain caused by this flaring has contributed significantly to the virtual extinction of most fish populations in the area. Nigeria is Africa’s top crude oil-exporting nation, and yet the people who live in
the delta are among the poorest in Africa. (Photo by Kendra E. Thornbury)
    But in all of our time here, the military has only ever stopped us to give us a hard time, and it had never taken more than a bit of cheeky dialogue and a playful refusal to pay (we followed the lead of our Nigerian friends) before we were on our way. Because the Nigerian government is pretty friendly with the United States, it seemed logical enough that we’d work in the region without serious incident.
    This time, the situation escalated quickly. First we were told that we were being held at the checkpoint for our own safety — maybe they thought we were being kidnapped? (This is hard to believe; they never asked if any of us were concerned about the Nigerian man accompanying us, and we gave off no “I am so relieved that you just saved me from being kidnapped!” vibes.) After the safety excuse expired, we were told we could only continue to travel on the river with a paid military escort, which no responsible filmmaker would ever do — it would place the villagers in jeopardy, and we’d be in greater danger for being seen with the JTF. Every hurdle the checkpoint officers presented for holding us in custody was overcome: passports, visas, etc. But each time we overcame a hurdle it was replaced by a new pretend reason for holding us. It was chilling.
    While the crew and I were placed in the commanding officer’s quarters — where, in a bizarre twist, a TV played soft-core porn — officers and security personnel outside determined our fate. I tried to negotiate our way out of the situation, loudly and upfront, while my production coordinator, Tammi Sims, quietly sent text messages to our contact in the United States, Leslye Wood, to let her know we might have a problem.
    A basic principle in any military situation is this: the orders soldiers have given you hold until their superior officers pass along new orders. So, if you’re allowed to talk to each other, eat, reach in your bag, or use your phone, you do it like crazy before the game changes. My crew was amazing: calm, smart, and brave. In the few hours we had to do it, we destroyed DVDs, smart cards, tapes, notes, and a camera — in short, everything that could get us convicted of “espionage” (a bogus charge used against others who have tried to record the suffering of the people in that region for decades) and anything that could be used against the people who had worked with us in Nigeria. Destroying our work was the right thing to do, but devastating nonetheless. It represented more than two years of work and was crucial to finishing the film.
    It is a heady concept to be seized at gunpoint, and it’s compounded when you feel responsible for the Nigerians who have trusted you — the ones in your notes and on your footage. Unfortunately, I knew that the State Security Services (SSS) were renowned for fabricating evidence, abusing Nigerian journalists, and detaining people indefinitely without charges. As we were being driven from one military base to another, I was seated next to the SSS commander. He was on the phone with his boss when I overheard the words “arrest number” and “charge is sabotage.”
    Oh my god.
    We still had our cell phones, so I called Tammi, who was in another car, to tell her what I had heard. I had to call rather than furtively send a text because my polarized prescription sunglasses rendered the screen illegible, but without them I was virtually blind. But it was time to tell our U.S.-based team to get serious help. So, I looked right at the SSS commander and dialed. His knowing smile as I spoke is one of the eerie images I can’t shake. In the other car, Tammi turned to Cliff and said, “How do you spell sabotage?” Even under stress, she is an impeccable texter.
    They drove the five of us (four filmmakers and our Nigerian guide and friend Joel Bisina) from Warri to Abuja — a dangerous eight-and-a-half hour drive in trucks with six armed soldiers per vehicle. It was hard to decide if I wanted the drive to end or hoped it would continue forever, because I had no idea what awaited us. I was haunted by thoughts of every prison or torture movie I had ever seen. Damn Midnight Express, Papillon, and Death and the Maiden.
    We asked if we could listen to music on our iPods (to help with our nerves and burn out the batteries since we had video clips on them we did not want the SSS to find). Huddled in the back, three of us shared one set of headphones while Tammi played DJ. I have never been so happy to hear the Dixie Chicks in my life. Along with Natalie Maines’s “Truth No. 2” — “you don’t like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth” — came the Pretenders’ “Revolution,” a long-standing rock favorite for iconoclasts born into the wrong era: “Bring on the revolution, I wanna die for something.” Truth be told, these were the defiant tunes, and easier to remember now, but Tammi started by spinning slow, comforting songs, including an old spiritual hymn featuring harmonies from my closest friend. It literally made that harrowing ride bearable. It’s an iMix that no one wants to need, but we will be forever grateful for having had.
    We spent the next week detained by the SSS in Abuja, Nigeria, never charged or officially arrested. We weren’t physically harmed, just uncomfortable and very scared. Our quarters could have been worse, but hardly matched the “hotel-like” environment described to our families by the State Department, though they never saw our rooms. I was held in a room with a flea-ridden mattress, with no air conditioner or fan in a 100-degree environment (a condition that changed after 14 lawmakers stepped up for us). I had sporadic access to food and water. The lack of water was the hardest part. I am struck by and a little embarrassed at how quickly I felt weak and a bit broken in there.
    At one point, after sleeping for two hours, I was woken for interrogation. I was questioned four times total — once for six hours. A constant feature of interrogation is fear of what might come if I failed to give them what they wanted, although I never knew what that actually was. I tried to think of some of the questions as really bad moments from film-fest audience Q&As, just to keep my sanity — it helped. Had it not been for the constant low-grade terror that they would switch tactics to violence, I would have found some of it interesting. Now, I can only remember how horrible my own fear smells. It haunts me to think about people who do jobs where they smell other peoples’ fear every day. What I can tell you is that intimidation yields bad information. I could not remember basic details that I had no reason to try to hide.
Members of MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the controversial group called thugs or terrorists by some, an armed wing of the political resistance by others. (Photo by Ryan Hauck)
    I used to make that point about torture in political arguments with friends. Many things that were once philosophical are now physical. A member of my family said, “What kind of a country detains someone without charges, who cannot see a lawyer, whom they know is not a real security threat — just to send a message, just to intimidate them, what kind of country?” Sadly, the answer is the United States, Nigeria, and countless others. Illegal detention is a blight on our collective soul and has to end immediately. And if anyone being detained is a real criminal, let’s hear the evidence and bring him or her to justice. Even one hour held against your will when you’re innocent is a terrible burden, let alone the years many have faced.

    We were picked up by the military on a river in Nigeria for reasons I’ll never fully know. Once they Googled the film title and my name, we were held because the old guard military in Nigeria does not want this story told. They were open about this. Had I been filming only militants in masks with guns — an image that supports the narrative the Nigerian government wants disseminated — I believe my crew and I would have walked. The truth is that people living in this region have been ripped off and left for dead for half a century. It’s a pressing political issue and requires long-term preventive diplomacy, not more AFRICOM troops from the Pentagon. OK, not as sexy as approaches go, but it’s what has a shot at averting another African travesty. Ironically, the only footage the SSS confiscated from us was the “peaceful solutions” footage — the “hope” footage, intended to round out the film with a vision for a just Niger Delta past peak oil.
    It was only because 14 U.S. lawmakers led by Maria Cantwell and countless others in the community advocated courageously that we were released as quickly as we were. As we flew out of the country, I read that the price of oil had reached an all-time high. Yet I knew that for the first time in my life, I had paid the true price of oil. For one week, my crew and I had been denied our freedom and every other basic right so that those in power could control that natural resource with impunity. Here at home, we have abdicated all moral authority to do the same. Hopefully, those U.S. lawmakers who signed a letter on our behalf will use this tiny moment of attention to address the real issues about oil — not just the price of gas — for a start, and push for third-party international mediation in the Niger Delta. If they do this, our detention was ultimately worth it. If they do not, it was just awful.

What are the roots of your interest in social justice?
I was doing a paper for Professor Hunt Terrell in my freshman year. I had to go into the stacks and read the Congressional Record about choices made in 1954 regarding Guatemala. Reading that openly, on the floor of Congress, a decision was made to overthrow a government because of our relationship with the United Fruit Company, my 18-year-old eyes popped out of my head. I had the feeling that somehow, if people could see the consequences to the life of a person in Guatemala, they wouldn’t allow this to happen. I started to go to every lecture I could — I heard a Salvadoran torture victim speak on campus. I got involved in political activism, through Bunche House and in Syracuse.

Why did you choose documentary as your mode of activism?
Ultimately, art outlives politics. Sitting in the dark with popcorn and with people around you letting themselves be washed over with the emotion of why something matters — that’s what makes change. I became devoted to the idea that witnessing, and then retelling that story to other people, was my role in all of it.

Your first experience in filmmaking was at Colgate. What was the most important thing that you learned from that?
I took Filmmaking with John Knecht, and if I’m not mistaken, it was the first time he’d offered it. Joe Berlinger ’83 [the documentary filmmaker] was in that class as well.
Documentary filmmaker Sandy Cioffi '84
    In the same semester, I was taking American Intellectual History with Kit Hinsley, and The History of Science. So here I am studying mass movements and resistance, storytelling and filmmaking, and reading Stephen Jay Gould and ideas of punctuated equilibrium. It all came together. There I was with my little Super 8 camera and hot glue splicer trying to make this experimental film to represent the idea of punctuated equilibrium versus evolution. It’s all so undergraduate-heady and intellectually arrogant when I look back at it, but it was so stunning.
    To have been given a camera at the same time that I was having such an explosion of ideas was the perfect thing to create someone who, for the rest of their life, would always stop and consider the content of the message first, and then decide which tool of communication to use.
    No matter how much the tools of communication move and shift under your feet, you are still in charge of the story. That message is more potent than ever, because after all, what we learned in filmmaking class, from the technical perspective, is yesterday’s news. But that doesn’t mean that the class is archaic or unimportant. If I’m using a piece of editing software that John Knecht could never have anticipated, it doesn’t change the fact that he taught me what a good part in the story is to cut. It doesn’t matter what I use to make the cut. What matters is that I was taught basic editing and storytelling.

Why did you choose to tell the story about oil in the Niger Delta?
Originally I was just a camera for hire. I was in Northern Ireland to document the behavior of the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] during the Good Friday Peace Agreement, and a local organization that was going to Nigeria got my name. So my first trip there, I was filming a nonprofit organization building a library. As luck would have it, I happened to be in this village in the delta that has been really impacted from the consequences of oil when the young student resistance organization decided to switch to militancy — when MEND was being formed. I knew that I was looking at what would be in two to three years a huge story.
    Not only were there no cameras, there were no news agencies; there wasn’t even anyone who seemed to know this place existed. The consequences were about to come home, and no one was watching. It just seemed like one of those moments that is ripe for an independent camera to get in there fast.

How are you working around the footage that you lost while you were detained?
I can’t go back in the country. We hope to be able to raise money so that some of the people whom I had either already interviewed or was supposed to interview can be flown to New York and interview them there. Some, I am interviewing on a USB camera, capturing the Yahoo Chat, and putting it in the movie.

What is the one thing the everyday person in America needs to know about this issue?
What they can understand immediately is that what’s happening in places like this is no longer far away. The most concrete and obvious way they’ll know the difference is the price of gas. But I would ask people to go beyond the price of gas and understand the true price of oil. Even if we became green enough tomorrow to stop needing petrol, we are responsible for having decimated places like the Niger Delta for 50 years. What are we going to do about it?
    Here’s the upside. As dire as it can seem, it’s really fixable. Whereas other countries don’t, Nigeria has the resources, if only the political shift occurs. So if my story gets out there, Sweet Crude can be part of a coming wave of people knowing that the Niger Delta is one of probably 100 villages around the world that are impacted by 50 years of oil production, and we have to be a part of how those places turn around. You can’t just start driving electric cars and say, “Sorry about all that.”

What’s your next project?
I intend to use this film as an activist tool toward preventative diplomacy for this issue. For example, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has promised me that when the movie is done they are going to do a screening.
    When I’m done with that, I want to make a film about the craftsmanship of wine, bread, and cheese, all made by women. One is a group of sisters who won their winery from their father in a bet, one is a nun in an abbey who makes cheese, one is a breadmaker in Oregon. It would be a sort of painterly, beautiful, experimental documentary. After all this danger and guns, I think it might be time to go to Italy and follow some women making wine.

What kind of a car do you drive?
This is funny, but it’s true; at the start of the movie I owned this beautiful 1967 Mercury Monterey convertible, off-white with a white top. And it got about six miles to the gallon. I looked in the mirror and thought ‘the enemy is you.’ So I sold it and I put it in the movie. Now I have an old beater ’96 Saab and it gets about 26 mpg.

What’s the last thing you watched?
I just rewatched The Thin Blue Line to get a little Errol Morris. I’m trying to sort out how to do some aspects of my story that I don’t have footage for, and that’s basically what he does the whole time. I have to keep reminding myself not to be intimidated by having pieces of footage missing.