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'Delta Boys' director Andrew Berends talks about being arrested in Nigeria

Berends was arrested and expelled from the country by the Nigerian government.

By Brian GeldinThe Film Panel Notetaker / May 30, 2012

An aerial view of the oil hub city of Port Harcourt in Nigeria's Delta region on May 16.

Akintunde Akinleye/REUTERS

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In 2008 while making his documentary Delta Boys, filmmaker Andrew Berends (The Blood of My Brother, When Adnan Comes Home) was arrested and falsely accused of espionage at the bustling Nembe waterside in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, while filming women bringing their products to the market. Also arrested were his translator, Samuel George, and host Joe Bussio. Berends was detained for 10 days and expelled from the country by the Nigerian government in a bid to suppress media coverage of the Niger Delta conflict. In the end, Berends was never charged with a crime, but George’s and Bussio’s legal statuses then remained undetermined. A fundraiser had been set up for people to contribute to their legal fees. Bussio had eventually been cleared of all charges, and George was expected to report to the authorities soon after, and he too was eventually let go, according to Berends.

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Berends in a statement said, “It is important that translators and local journalists around the world know they can do their jobs without fear for their lives, their families, or the expenses they will incur on our behalf.” Berends’s experience in Nigeria is just one example of a government using its power to deter journalists from reporting their stories, but this is not just happening overseas.

This brings to mind a more recent development back in April right here on U.S. soil when filmmaker Laura Poitras (The Oath) returned home from a recent trip abroad where she was detained by Homeland Security at Newark Airport and threatened with being handcuffed for attempting to take notes during her interrogation. Poitras has been repeatedly harassed, detained, interrogated and has had her cameras and computers seized as she attempts to re-enter her home country in more than three dozen incidences.

Cinema Eye Honors, the organization that honors the craft of nonfiction filmmaking (which in full disclosure, I am on the advisory board), released a statement offering a similar sentiment to that of Berends’s saying, “It is unacceptable for any American nonfiction filmmaker or journalist to be treated in this manner.  They must be able to return to their own country without fear of arrest or fear that their work product will be seized, solely because they are investigating or chronicling subject matter that may be sensitive or controversial.”

Delta Boys made its World Premiere last night as the closing film of Stranger Than Fiction’s spring season at IFC Center in New York. Berends bravely captures life in a tiny fishing village caught in the crossfire of the conflict of the Niger Delta militancy in the face of corrupt government oppression in this oil-rich region of Nigeria. In his own narration, Berends follows the personal stories of Ateke Tom, the “Godfather” of the Niger Delta Vigilante Force, Chima, a 21-year-old who left home to join the fight, and Mama, a 22-year-old who struggles to give birth to her first child with no access to modern medical care, while raids are launched from a militant camp across the river. These stories reflect a broader global struggle between entrenched power and corporate interests and an underserved population. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States. Yet, despite this natural wealth, the majority of Niger Deltans live in poverty. Ateke’s militants, along with other groups, have called for a greater distribution of wealth and jobs. When their requests have been ignored, they’ve attacked oil installations and pipelines, kidnapped foreigners and made the entire Delta a no-go-zone. But many feel that while the Niger Delta struggle is legitimate, the militants’ motives are not so pure.

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