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

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

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

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.

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.

Stranger Than Fiction founder Thom Powers led a discussion with Berends after the screening of Delta Boys. Below are highlights of that Q&A.

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.

Someone in the audience next asked him if he had ever seen violence towards women. Berends said he did not. Some of the men in the camps do have wives, sometimes more than one wife. As far as he knew, Ateke Tom’s camp was the only one that women sometimes went to, because Ateke Tom wanted it to be more like a village, than a camp. One time one of the rebel’s two wives visited, and he saw that one of them was getting more attention than the other, but he never witnessed any violence towards women.

Who was supporting the rebels, and why were they given amnesty by the government, someone asked. Berends said there is probably not one answer to that hard question, but his understanding of Ateke Tom was that before he became a so-called Niger Delta freedom fighter, he was actually a hired muscle for the politicians and armed by them to help rig elections and things like that. At some point, Ateke Tom either joined the Niger Delta movement or took it on as a guise for whatever else he was doing. He said there’s a question of whether these guys are freedom fighters, are they gangsters, or somewhere in between? For him, it’s a question if there was anyone genuinely fighting for the cause, and he doesn’t know. There had been peaceful agitations, big movements that have not been very successful to the point where one of their non-violent activists fighting for distribution of wealth on the Niger Delta thought now maybe violence is the only way to resolve the situation. The amnesty came after a crack down on the camps. In the film, none of that fighting is shown because Berends said he wasn’t present during any of it. Berends tried to re-answer the original question about why did the government give them amnesty over wiping them out? He said the militants probably could have shut down the oil industry, but they didn’t choose to. One factor was that there was so much money involved. But he wasn’t sure why the government chose amnesty, saying perhaps they wanted to choose a more peaceful solution, and there were relationships between the government and some of the rebels.

Berends’ mother who was in the audience asked if he thought the government was just trying to avoid bad press by granting the amnesty, and who was making money besides the oil companies? He said the militants did shut down between 25% to 30% of the oil industry, which cost the country billions of dollars. Everyone who could get a piece of the money was getting it. Most of the money goes to the Nigerian federal government, which is then dispersed to the local government, which doesn’t necessarily get trickled down from there. There is corruption pretty much at every level of government and society in Nigeria.

Someone else in the audience asked Berends why he was interested in the situation in the Niger Delta and getting in harm’s way, and did he have interest in getting viewpoints from the government side? He said his initial impulse was to put himself in harm’s way a little bit. He had seen some footage of the Niger Delta militants. He thought he could handle that level of risk, so he researched the story, and he realized it was a very important story. It’s about the environment, where our oil comes from, it’s about exploitation. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States. It is a far-off exotic story, but also about something that is pretty meaningful to people today. He said he did try to interview the other side. He contacted every single oil company working in Nigeria, and they either didn’t answer or politely rejected him. He also tried to go to government sources, and they just said, “No.” He said his main desire was to document what it is like to live in the Niger Delta, which is the type of film he prefers to make.

Brian Geldin blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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