A movie about crime and shame, “Sweet Crude” is also a classic example of urgent, righteous-indignation agitprop cinema that succeeds in being not just angry, but art. Commercial prospects for this look at the cruel corporate exploitation of the Niger Delta will depend on how cannily its producers/promoters can frontload “Sweet Crude’s” unusual assets — d.p. Sean Porter’s painterly shooting, Julie Wolf’s funk-ethereal music and helmer Sandy Cioffi’s frighteningly gentle narration, all of which blend toseductive psychological effect, suggesting gossamer dreams about paradise lost, with an undertone of unrefined fury.
After 50 years and $700 billion in oil sucked out of the ground by Royal Dutch Shell and its co-conspirator, Chevron, the Niger Delta is among the most polluted places on Earth, says UC Berkeley geography professor Michael Watts, Cioffi’s most astute talking head. Watts clarifies something else essential about Nigeria: The exploited African nation is “a very shaky, rickety federation” that isn’t a natural nation at all, but has always been a ripe candidate for divide-and-conquer colonialism.
Which makes sense of what we’ve learn about “Sweet Crude’s” evolution. “This is not the movie I intended to make,” Cioffi says in her initial voiceover, explaining she was there to make a movie about a library, the construction of which marked a rare collaboration between the government, oil companies and usually contentious tribal interests. But the students involved used the opening ceremony to mount a protest over their exploited resources, and Cioffi knew she had another movie to make.
Good characters make good docs, and Cioffi is fortunate to have thoughtful men and funny, feisty women (and sometimes vice versa) to ornament a film that provides enough history to make sense and enough humanity to wash it down. Despite the utter destruction of their environment and the fact that mothers now have to describe to their children the animals that once ran free around their homes, a sense of despondency and/or resignation is absent from what Cioffi presents. There are plenty of reasons for dread; the speed with which the air quality rots the zinc roofs of the houses makes one shudder to think what it’s doing to the inhabitants. But the mood is generally upbeat and optimistic, despite anyone’s prognosis.
What “Sweet Crude” will have viewers despairing over is the utterly pathetic performance of television news regarding Nigeria and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which Cioffi portrays as a legitimate force for peaceful change, and which ABC News uses as fodder for sensationalized “reportage,” replete with hammering drums, hyperbolic graphics and threats of rising gas prices.
Reporter Brian Ross, ignoring the very same interview we’ve just watched him do, unaccountably links MEND to Al Qaeda; the ease with which ABC accepts the legitimacy of an email from someone who calls himself Jomo Gbomo (and claims to run MEND), and dismisses a real member of MEND when he disavows violence, tells us everything we need to know about Ross, ABC and the reason TV news has lost so much credibility since the days of Walter Cronkite.
Among the people thanked in the credits for their fiscal contributions to “Sweet Crude” is Anonymous, who says, “We owe them.” There are few who’d argue, once they’ve been led by Cioffi’s hand through the despoiled garden of the Niger Delta and its catalogue of corporate blessings.
Production values are remarkable, especially the aformentioned cinematography and music.