It’s doubtful that Andrew Berends settled on the name of his latest film, DELTA BOYS, lightly. An examination of the Niger Delta Vigilante, an anti-government militia in the oil-rich Niger Delta region populated by self-described freedom fighters, the film is largely a portrait of children in the Nigerian wilderness playing at soldier. Absent from all of the militants’ gunplay and posturing is any attempt by to elucidate a considered political ideology—instead they seem content to define themselves in terms of their opposition to the Nigerian government. Stuck between these two parties are the poverty-stricken fisherman of the Delta region who are ignored by the government and subject to the whims of militants, whose actions leave at least some of them in a state of perpetual terror. What emerges from Berends film is an examination of a conflict with many sides, but none that could objectively be considered good. Following the screening, Berends spoke with Stranger Than Fiction Artistic Director Thom Powers. Click “Read more” below for the Q&A.
Stranger Than Fiction: Talk to me about how you got in with this group in the first place?
Andrew Berends: It was difficult, it took a while. I made one attempt that kind of failed one year. I spent six weeks in Port Harcourt, which is the oil city in that region. I finally made some connection who took me to one of the other really big militant camps. They took me there and I saw the guys, I spent like two hours there, and then somebody changed their mind. They took me back to the village, and then they left me in the village for two weeks. And I kind of gave up and came back home. But it kind of bothered me so I thought I would go back and try again. I worked through some of the same contacts. Actually, when I went back the second time, having developed the contacts, the same morning I arrived in Port Harcourt they took me to the militant camp. Which was quicker than I was ready for. But it was cool. And then, once I had that degree of access, it’s just a matter of hanging out with him. I think I was the first journalist or filmmaker who’s lived with them. People had visited before and go for two hours, three hours. You see that kind of thing they did with the press conference—they put on their masks. But then there’s the process of just hanging out, sharing the same conditions. Living with them, it was really uncomfortable in the camp, it’s really hot and humid. There’s bugs, and it gets really boring.
STF: Talk to me just about the conditions of filming. You’ve got gear that needs to be recharged.
Berends: That was my big fear, because you need electricity to do this kind of film.
STF: You were shooting on tapes?
Berends: I was shooting on cards, but very expensive cards. So I only had so many. So not only did I need to charge my batteries, I needed to download all the footage to my laptop every night, erase the cards, reuse the cards. So I was really worried about that. What if I get there, and then I can shoot for two days because of the batteries. But when I got there, they welcomed me and we were sitting at a table. These guys brought us cold beers, and I wasn’t really thinking about it. But the guy that brought me there was like, Andy, you know what that means. They’ve got generators. Fuel is very cheap.
STF: Talk to me about the people who worked with you—fixers or others.
Berends: For some of the time I didn’t have a fixer. They speak English to varying degrees. English is the official national language. Not everybody speaks English English, they speak pidgin English, and then there’s 200 native languages. So I didn’t totally need a translator to get by. So I worked for three months without a fixer or translator, it was just me. I had contacts to get me there. But once I got to the camp, it was just me and there is a bit of a language barrier, so I got someone to work with me.
STF: Can you explain the circumstances that got you put in jail?
Berends: I was in Port Harcourt, and there’s a bustling seaport—the army’s there, the police are there, the bad guys are there. All the black market trade is going there. It’s the access point to the creeks, which is where the militants have access to their camps. It’s a really exciting place and I kept wanting to film there but officials say you can’t. But I ended up talking to a commander in charge and told him what I was doing. He said, I can’t give you permission, but it’s also not in my authority to tell you you can’t do it. And then I bought beers and gave him an extra $20. And I filmed there on three occasions, and one time a plainclothes intelligence guy came over and said, stop filming, you have to come with us. Then it’s a long story of what happened from there. When I was in camps, I was safe. It was when crossing the lines that it was a little bit risky.
STF: What was it like getting your material out of the country?
Berends: Every two weeks, I would back up little portable hard drives and send them back via UPS.
Audience: Did the rebels ever specifically ask you to stop filming. And did you ever feel like you were putting them in danger by taking their image?
Berends: I got in trouble once, because one night they were doing an initiation for some new guys, and I thought, let me try to film that. It’s like hazing, you saw it a couple of times in the flogging. The initiation is several times worse than that. I don’t know if it’s true, but they say that people sometimes die, it’s so extreme. They call it “Going to the Island.” But if you survive that, you’re in the group. I didn’t even get close to it. I filmed through the bushes, and this guy was like, no, you can’t film it, so I stopped. I was living in a tent with six other guys and in the morning Ateke Tom came into the tent and said, I’m not happy about last night. He took my laptop, all of my hard drives, everything, and gave me $3,000. He said, I’m not seizing your equipment, I’m buying it from you. I tried to talk my way out of it and he said, tomorrow we’re going to another camp. You’re going to show me all of the footage, and if it’s okay I’ll give you all of your stuff back and you can keep the money. So the next day I went to the other camp and started showing him footage. Anybody who’s ever made a documentary knows how boring it is to sit through hours and hours of guys sitting around in camp sweating. So it didn’t last that long and he passed the job to another guy, and I finally got my equipment back. But in general, I think that was the only time I was told I couldn’t film something. There wasn’t a lot happening a lot of the time. There was the one time that they put their masks on, and most of them didn’t even put their masks on. A lot of guys were excited, they wanted to be on camera. They didn’t seem concerned about it. What happened in the film is that they were granted amnesty, so on a technical level, they shouldn’t have anything to fear about being exposed.
Audience: I’m wondering if you saw any violence against women? Did they have wives and families?
Berends: I did not see violence against women. They do have wives, sometimes more than one. As far as I know, Ateke’s camp is the only one that women sometimes go to. He says he likes the camp to be more like a village than a camp, because they’re in exile. He calls it his Port Harcourt. One time one of the rebels, both of his wives visited. One was definitely getting more attention than the other, but I definitely didn’t witness any violence. That said, women certainly have a hard time in the Niger Delta for a lot of reasons.
Audience: Do you know who supported the rebels? Where do they get their weapons and money? And secondly, why do you think the government offered them amnesty?
Berends: Those are hard questions to answer, there’s probably not one answer, and they’re related. As far as Ateke Tom goes, before he became a so-called Niger Delta freedom fighter, he was basically hired muscle for the local politicians. So before this became international news, he was armed by local politicians to help rig elections and things like that. At some point he either joined the Niger Delta movement, or took it on. I can’t answer the question—are these guys freedom fighters? Are they gangsters, or somewhere in between? For me the question is, is there any genuine armed struggle fighting for the cause they say they’re fighting for. I don’t know. There has been peaceful agitation that hasn’t been very successful. One of the most significant peaceful activists was executed by the government, which kind of legitimizes the rebels. We tried peacefully, maybe violence is the only way to change the situation. But it’s a big question mark.
Audience: Did the government pay them off to stop fighting?
Berends: They did, they paid them money and started training programs, the idea being to rehabilitate them. But this also came after a crackdown, villages were bombed. You don’t see any fighting in this film because I never happened to be present anytime anything like that happened. It’s sort of a simmering guerrilla war that sometimes flares up. The militants could probably shut down the oil industry if they worked together, but they didn’t choose to. There’s so much money involved, that’s one factor. Why didn’t the government just wipe them out? I can’t answer that. Probably, they didn’t want to kill everybody. Maybe they thought peaceful means were a better solution. And, going back how Ateke was originally armed, there are relationships between the government and some of the rebels. It’s confusing.
Audience: Do you think the amnesty was just the government dealing with bad press?
Berends: Basically, the militants did shut down 25%-30% of the oil industry, which cost the government billions and billions of dollars. It hasn’t all fully come back online. Maybe it just makes more sense to buy them off.
Audience: But who is making the money, besides the oil companies?
Berends: Anybody who can get a piece of it. Most of the profits go to the Nigerian federal government, which then disperses it to the rest of the country, including the local government of the Niger Delta. It doesn’t necessarily trickle down from there. There’s corruption at pretty much every level of Nigeria, that’s what I experienced.
Audience: How did you get interested in this situation? And I was wondering why you didn’t interview anyone on the government side.
Berends: The initial impulse was partly the desire to put myself in harm’s way. It’s a small part of it. I had made two films in Iraq, and it was important work to me and felt exciting. I’d seen some footage of these Niger Delta militants, and I thought I could handle that level of risk, it seems exciting, let me research the story. And I found out that it was about where our oil comes from, about exploitation. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the U.S. It is a far-off, exotic story, but it is pretty meaningful today, I think. So then I thought, I got hooked for one reason, but it’s actually a really important thing. I think I’m actually good at doing it, I think I can do a good job, so I decided to give it a shot. Then I went there. Did I consider interviewing the other side? Definitely. I tried to contact every single oil company working in Nigeria. They all didn’t answer or politely rejected my inquiries. I tried the government forces, and they just said no. That kind of made my choice for me. My main objective was to document what it’s like to live in the Niger Delta, what it’s like to be a Niger Delta militant—all of those things. That’s kind of the film I prefer to make, so that’s what I did.
STF: Andy, I know that after you were expelled from the country you made many attempts over a long period of time to go back, but were unsuccessful. To what extent are you able to stay in touch with some of the people you made contact with?
Berends: Facebook. That’s the main way. I still have phone numbers. I’m not in touch with them all the time. Everybody has a cell phone. I lost a lot of phone numbers when I was arrested because they told me they were going to use all the information they got from me to go after these people—militants, anybody. Which is devastating as a journalist. You build trust, you get people to talk to you, and then your job is to protect your source. So I had this one opportunity to get my phone. I didn’t want them to get my phone numbers, so I pulled the SIM card out. I had seen too many spy movies or something, and the guy in front of me got strip searched, so I tried to swallow it. And it went halfway down and then I threw it up into my mouth. So I managed to swallow it. I lost a bunch of phone numbers.