'Delta Boys' director Andrew Berends talks about being arrested in Nigeria
Berends was arrested and expelled from the country by the Nigerian government.
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Stranger Than Fiction founder Thom Powers led a discussion with Berends after the screening of Delta Boys. Below are highlights of that Q&A.Skip to next paragraph
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Powers asked how Berends was able to get into Ateke Tom’s camp to film. Berends said that he wanted to be there, and made an attempt to go there, but failed at first. He spent six weeks in Port Harcourt where he made some connections that took him to one of the other big militant camps, but his contacts changed their mind and left him in a village for two weeks where he had given up and returned back home. He wanted to try again and went through some of the same contacts and upon that second try, he was taken to Ateke Tom’s camp. Once he got that degree of access, it was a matter of just hanging out with them and sharing the same conditions with them. Other journalists or filmmakers had gone to visit them before, but he was the first to live with them. Besides having to deal with bugs and the heat, Berends said it was often boring.
Given the conditions, Powers asked how Berends was able to manage to power his camera batteries and other equipment, and if there were any language barriers. Berends said it was his big fear to not have power, because he wouldn’t be able to make his film otherwise. He shot the film on video cards, not tape. Not only did he have to recharge his batteries, but he had to download the footage to his laptop every night. Fortunately, there was generator power at the camp. In terms of the language, most everyone spoke English to varying degrees, as well as at least one of the region’s 200 native languages. He didn’t always need a translator to get by. He worked a few months without a fixer or translator. It was just him once he got to the camp, though he did find someone after about three months.
Powers asked Berends to explain the circumstances that got him put in jail. Berends recalled being at Nembe waterside in Port Harcourt, which is the access point to the creeks where there’s a strong presence of the army, the police, and black market trading. Some people told him he couldn’t film there, but he tried one day and spoke with a commander in charge and told him what he was doing. The commander said he couldn’t give him permission, but it wasn’t in his authority to tell him not to do it either. He bought him some beer and gave him $20. He got down there to film the waterside on three occasions. On that last occasion, there was a plain-clothed army intelligence man who told him to stop filming and then he was arrested. He said he felt safer when he was in the militant camps.
What was it like getting his material out of the country, Powers asked. Berends said every two weeks he pack up a portable hard drive and took it to the UPS office to send it home. Later in the discussion, Powers asked if Berends has stayed in touch with anyone from the camp, and he said he had lost a lot of their phone numbers when he was arrested, because they told him they were going to go after these people and take his contacts, which is devastating as a journalist. You build trust and get people to agree to talk with you, protecting your source. During his arrest while he was being transferred from one place to another, he had this one opportunity to get his phone and he pulled the SIM card out of it and put it in his mouth and swallowed it. While the police never seized that, he did end up losing a bunch of his contacts’ phone numbers.
From the audience, Berends was asked if he had ever been asked by the rebels to ever stop filming in the camps and did he ever feel like he may have been putting them in danger from being filmed. Berends said he only got in trouble once when he tried to film an initiation ceremony. He didn’t even get close to it, he was shooting through the bushes. Someone told him he couldn’t film it, so he stopped. The next morning, Ateke Tom came into his tent and told him he wasn’t happy about it, took all of his laptops and hard drives and gave him $3,000. Ateke Tom told him he wasn’t seizing his equipment; he was buying it from him. He tried to talk his way out of it, and he had to show Ateke Tom all of the footage the next day. There wasn’t a lot happening all of the time. They didn’t all seem concerned to be filmed. There was one time they put their masks on. A lot of the guys were excited and wanted to be on the camera. At that point while he was filming, they had been granted amnesty by the government, so they didn’t have anything to fear about being exposed.