Andrew Berends’ gripping new documentary “Delta Boys” does something undeniably important: it puts human voices and faces behind the terms and datelines we run into almost every week in newspapers, on websites, and on cable new channel crawls. Words like “militant” and “rebels,” and places like Nigeria and the Niger Delta sadly mean little to most Westerners. It’s all happening, literally, in another part of the globe, a world far beyond our everyday existence. Berends, the award-winning filmmaker behind the acclaimed Iraq docs “The Blood of My Brother” and “When Adnan Comes Home” knows this. He understands our lack of knowledge, along with our naïveté. So his “Delta Boys” is, above all else, a teaching tool.
Don’t let that scare you away. For “Delta Boys” is nothing if not involving, a brisk, focused 55-minute look at the realities of the Niger Delta’s oil battles, and a film that saw its director locked up, accused of espionage. (More on that in a bit.) As the film begins, Berends, in voice-over, describes the struggle, which pits the Nigerian government, in connection with multi-national oil companies, against the militants who believe the only way to truly make a stand is with weaponry. Berends also turns his camera on the folks caught in the middle, the villagers trying to live their everyday lives amidst violence and poverty. “Ordinary life takes its course,” he tells us, and so it does, but this is ordinary life without roads, adequate schools, and many basic necessities.
But the militants capture our attention most. When Berends begins to film them, one advises him, “Say only what you see. Don’t add or subtract.” Soon, the question at the heart of Berends’ film becomes clear: Are the militants not the villains assume them to be? Yes, they are violent men capable of murder and even torture; we see several brutal beatings of men who committed misdeeds, as well as particularly grisly fistfight at the militant camp. “We will take lives. We will destroy lives,” says one. But what if it’s justified? What if the end result is worth it? These are the questions that arise in “Delta Boys,” and they are bold, controversial ones.
We meet militant leader Tom Ateke, as well as Chima, a young militant whose mother wonders whether he is alive or dead. We’re shown the nitty gritty of camp and village life, and hear the fevered exultations of the fighters. (“Even if I die, others will fight from where I stopped”). But Berends also gives us the opinions of the villagers, many of whom believe all the heroic talk (“We are not fighting for our self-interest”) is a lie. One refers to the dead bodies of the innocents the rebels have killed—do they not disprove the militants’ words? Berends leaves the viewer to conclude who is telling the truth; perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.
Eventually, the villagers must flee their homes. “That war is coming,” a preacher warns, and the powder keg appears ready to burst. Berends makes a sudden cut to a crying child—the scene isn’t more than a few seconds—but that image, more than any other, remained with me after the film concluded. It’s heartbreaking and unforgettable, and a reminder that the real losers in the Niger Delta fight are the children—the future of Nigeria. The film’s ending, coming after the rebels have surrendered for a promise of amnesty, seems rather sudden, and I found this move made me want to know even more. (“The amnesty brought a period of relative calm to the Niger Delta; it wouldn’t last.”) But perhaps that was Berends’ ultimate goal, to not just illuminate, but to keep the conversation alive.
As the film’s post-script tells us, during production on “Delta Boys,” Berends and his Nigerian translator were arrested and accused of espionage. The filmmaker was detained for ten days and expelled from the country by the Nigerian government, the same government that, he states at film’s end, has not solved any of the root problems of the conflict: “There are still no good roads, not good schools, and no good hospitals … the oil companies get richer, the West gets cheap oil … and the villagers continue to cast their oily hooks in the Niger Delta.” Wait—who are the villains again? [A]