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Little Woman, “Big Men”: Rachel Boynton Gets Oil Barons and Audiences to Drop Their Guard

Little Woman, "Big Men": Rachel Boynton Gets Oil Barons and Audiences to Drop Their Guard

Rachel Boynton calls “Big Men,” her documentary about an American company’s attempt drill for oil off the coast of Ghana, “a movie about how the world works.” Like Boynton’s films, which also include 2005’s “Our Brand Is Crisis,” the description can seem either all-encompassing or naive. Watch her movies and you’ll see sometimes astonishing footage of powerful men — oil barons and governments ministers in “Big Men,” presidential candidates and political consultants in “Our Brand Is Crisis” — letting down their guard; listen, and you’ll often hear Boynton asking questions in a voice tinged with wide-eyed innocence. Towards the end of “Crisis,” she asks the question “What went wrong?” with such guileless disillusion it sounds if she’s just learned there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.

In an interview with The L Magazine, Boynton says there’s no doubt that her gender is sometimes an asset when it comes to getting powerful men to let down their guard: “Having a nice, interested woman around is more appealing to them than having a nice, interested man around.” But that “nice, interested” persona is also a device, one she uses on her viewers as well as her subjects. 

During the course of a panel at the True/False film festival earlier this month about white filmmakers shooting documentaries in Africa, I did a 180 on the question of how conscious Boynton is of using that device, and then I did another. In response to a question from the audience about the perils of imposing a point of view on a different culture, Boynton responded that all films come from their makers’ perspectives, which are the only ones they have unfettered access to — a statement that, while true to the point of tautology, was so broad it could apply to the worst anthropological excesses. But then she followed up a few minutes later with a sharp answer about what documentarians do when they’re confronted with events that parallel rather than question received imagery, like a scene early in “Big Men” when the head of American Kosmos Energy appears to bribe a Ghanian tribal leader with a gift of $10,000 and six bottles of liquor (Red Hennessy preferred).

Part of the job is to recognize what you think and to recognize stereotypes when you see them, and to question them. It’s part of the dialogue. If we don’t show something because it’s a stereotype, if it’s true, then we’re ignoring an aspect of truth. Truth is extraordinarily complicated, and it has things in it at that are completely stereotypical and it had things in it that completely blow the lid off the stereotypes.

That willingness to keep stereotypical imagery in play may be partly why Cinema Scope‘s Michael Sicinski, in a three-way dialogue with critics Adam Nayman and Kiva Reardon, labeled “Big Men” a “bland neoliberal advertorial” that places Ghanian diplomats on an equal footing with the ambassadors of global capitalism. But if Boynton is sympathetic to Kosmos’ emissaries, especially Texas oilman Jim Musselman, she also gives them plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. As Robert Greene put it in an essay on both of Boynton’s films for Sight & Sound, “She is remarkably adept at allowing her characters to reveal, through observed words and actions, their roles and ideologies within tangled global circumstances…. Her ability to uncover subtle truths through tiny observations of character, while simultaneously telling enormous, dramatic, political stories, is simply unmatched in nonfiction.”

In some sense, “Big Men” is a movie about what you don’t see: the Ghanian higher-ups who largely stay off camera; the oil profits that are supposed to flow back to the country and its people but never quite seem to. And, of course, Boynton herself, who never appears in the film but is always present, both as its guiding intelligence and off-camera interlocutor. Where many documentarians train their subjects to make the question they’ve been asked part of their answer so as to minimize the interviewers’ presence, Boynton takes the opposite approach. “I’m generally dealing with people who have a lot of interest in not revealing themselves,” she explained when I asked her a question from the audience. “I discovered early on the importance of the question, in terms of creating a dialogue that takes it beyond being an interview.” Professional spin doctors and corporate chiefs aren’t likely to be caught off-guard by a question, no matter how prompt, but their answers can be redirected into new territory: Think of it as the cinema of the follow-up.
Boynton has another voice as well, one that spun me in my tracks when it came at me out of a crowd later that night: “Who do you write for?” It wasn’t an accusation, exactly, but it didn’t strike me as being an optional question. 

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