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Sweet Crude: Interview with Sandy Cioffi

A startling and evocative documentary comes to Toronto Tuesday night in Sweet Crude, a story about the plight of those living in the oil-rich Niger River Delta and a place ravaged by the lust for oil-a story that is ultimately, and unfortunately, all too familiar.

Showing at 6:30pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and presented by Cinema Politica, the film will be followed by a discussion led by the Seattle-based director about this situation in particular, and all the issues in general to which this documentary relates. They are humanitarian issues to be sure, but just as concerning are the political tactics of oppression and the impactful environmental consequences.

Sent to Nigeria to tell the story of a commemorative library opening up in the depressed delta area, Cioffi and her crew quickly discovered the harrowing situation at hand. Decades of exploitation has polluted the river, driven away a population, and left those there without proper homes, healthcare, or safety. Where there is oil, there is a fight for power and control, leaving a wake of despair.

The film succeeds at avoiding “Africa fatigue,” where stories exist in one small part of the western minds and all sound and look the same. It is easy to watch the beginning of the film and fall into the trap of having heard the problem before. What starts as a problem in one village far from here, however, starts to resonate within, and finds ramifications throughout the world.

“We’ve become really woefully tied to a cycle in discussing Africa; it’s infantilizing,” explained director Sandy Cioffi on the phone upon arriving in Toronto for the screening on Tuesday.  “Even when it is well meaning, it is two ways: we are shown victims, or perpetrators. It’s a sense of utter exploitation.”

Nuance is not a vice, and there are villains and heroes, activists and obstructionists of all colours. When the film shows a clip of a CNN story about the area, we see the difference so clearly between a documentary looking to uncover the truth and explaining in detail the complex struggle for land and oil against a quick and sensationalist TV spot, one that is irresponsibly simple and in fact, erroneous.

The documentary is at heart, in the words of Cioffi, about a sophisticated people with a vexing problem. Emerging from the desperation of the Nigerians was MEND: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. It is a militant group, yes, one that has become discouraged by attempts at peaceful discussion and turned to arming themselves, for defense at least. MEND becomes the face of the power struggle, a group that is ultimately the victim of what most groups and governments in Africa suffer from: lack of structure, failure of communication, and Western preconception.

Cioffi has been traveling for some time now showing the film around North America, making a stop here in Toronto years after its completion to have an important and ever-relevant discussion.

“I’m here to have a conversation, and it’s one that is ongoing,” she explained. “Part of the reason I’m out there is that I’m committed to raising the dialogue and stress the connection of the Niger Delta to North America.”

Since the film was completed, the Gulf Coast of the United States experienced the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a disaster that still adversely affects those living in the area. The tar sands continue to be a topic of controversy in Canada, and just this past weekend, 3,000 barrels of oil spilled into Jackson Creek, a part of the Red Deer River, in Alberta.

All of this is to say that Sweet Crude is one part of a bigger discussion. The film is another chapter, an entry into a collection of literature that explains the past horrors, present problems, and future solutions of oil dependency at home and exploitation around the world.

We must be wise to the situation, stresses Cioffi, and must be careful not to see such stark differences between the situations of say Canada, with that of Nigeria. “There are levels of corruption in the Nigeria government, but we think we’ll deal with it differently because we’re democratic.”

This is not exactly the case, as seen the film. The American government and news media were easily taken to view MEND as a terrorist organization instead of a group of disparaged, desperate people fighting for freedom and livelihood. The topic is politicized, and in politics, everything is boiled down to black and white, the simplest of discussions.

“If communities across the world understand each other, we will have a plan,” says Cioffi. “It is a most urgent, desperate situation.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I believed that they have already won,” said Cioffi referring to oil companies. “Their strategy is to shut down the smallest opposition, they fight against filmmakers.” In April 2008, Cioffi and four other members of the crew were detained for seven days by the Nigerian government. They were not charged, and withheld access to legal counsel before eventually being released due to much work by the U.S. State Department and myriad dedicated individuals and groups.

She continues on in her quest, seeking to be a part of a society that stops wringing the planet of oil and starts incentivizing innovation. Cioffi is excited to have an audience in Canada, where the tar sands will certainly be a part of the conversation. “It seems like a place with a great opportunity for connection.”

Check out the screening of the excellent documentary SWEET CRUDE on June 12 at 6:30 pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, followed by Q&A with director Sandy Cioffi.

Anthony Marcusa

A pop-culture consumer, Anthony seeks out what is important in entertainment and mocks what is not. Inspired by history, Anthony writes with the hope that someone, somewhere, might be affected.