Q & A: Andrew Berends and Aaron Soffin

CPJ interviewed documentary filmmaker Andrew Berends and producer Aaron Soffin at CPJ’s headquarters in New York. Berends spent 10 days in the custody of Nigeria’s State Security Services in Port Harcourt, from August 31 to September 9. He had been in the country for six months working on his film “Delta Boys.” Soffin worked to get Berends released.

CPJ: Tell us about your film.

BERENDS: The film focuses on the militants in the region, but it’s really dealing with what it’s like living in the Niger Delta, a region that produces enormous amounts of oil. Billions of dollars of oil get pumped out of the Niger Delta, but in some places the people live in abject poverty. There is a lot of frustration over that. The militants claim they are fighting for more resource control. And there’s a huge amount of corruption within the local government and then also among some of the militants who are supposedly fighting against that.

CPJ: What is the message you are trying to convey?

BERENDS: I’m an American. America consumes most of the world’s resources, including oil. And of course Americans do not want to pay more for it than necessary so the West wants oil as cheap as possible. I want Americans to see in places like the Niger Delta what’s the real cost of the oil that we want to get cheaply. And not just the cost in money but the cost in human suffering. It does not have to be this way. It’s an important story locally within Nigeria, the corruption that you have in the government with the disregard for citizens that live in the region, which is awful. But then the global implications of oil prices, destruction of the environment–all these issues are important globally.

CPJ: You were arrested on August 31 while you were filming in Niger Delta. Can you tell us what that was like?

BERENDS: I was filming in the Nembe waterside, Port Harcourt, in a bustling African seaport. It’s the access point from the city of Port Harcourt to the creeks. The creeks are where you have fishing villages but also militant camps since the creeks are a maze of waterways where they can hide. I was actually filming women coming from market boats selling their fish. It is an area where black market, bunkered oil is sold. A lot of business goes through this port. I hesitated to film there earlier on but felt more comfortable after six months. I spoke to the army sergeant in charge of the area and was told it was no problem. I was filming on top of a market boat, and a plainclothes intelligence officer called me over and arrested me and my translator, Samuel George. They took me to an army camp in Port Harcourt, and that was the beginning of the 10-day ordeal of being detained, my translator being detained, and my friend who I stayed with being detained.

CPJ: How does it feel like to be back home? Do you plan to return to Nigeria?

BERENDS: I think it’s conceivable to return. I am going to put in my application for a journalist visa–partly to see if I can even get one. I was never charged with anything as far as I know. I was never taken to court. I spent most of my detention under security. Most journalists, however, don’t get a visa when they ask for it.

CPJ: Given the long detention–30 hours of interrogation, the lack of food, etc.–do you think it’s wise to return?

BERENDS: I was first questioned by the army and then the police for the whole night, and finally by security. The most awful part about it is that they arrested my translator, who could potentially face more danger. It’s risky but I knew it was risky six months ago. It’s risky to spend time with militants who are engaged in gunbattles. As awful as it was it only makes me more determined to go back. They shut us out since they felt they had something to hide.

CPJ: Given that the Niger Delta is a war zone. How difficult is it to report on this story? Is the public willing to talk to you?

BERENDS: It’s not an easy place to report. There is some culture of fear; people are afraid to be too public about their opinions. There is a perception among people over there that journalists are spies, especially among the militants. It takes time and building the right contacts. In terms of getting access to the militants, there are different ways. It’s about getting close to people and spending time with people. They get to see how I’m a human being and what I want to do is show that they are human beings. A lot of the reporting on the Niger Delta story has lacked any depth. It’s always the same story and the same pictures.

CPJ: Who are the parties that don’t want the “Delta Boys” story to be filmed’?

BERENDS: For a start, it’s a bad strategy. By censoring it they make themselves look at least as guilty if not more guilty by appearing to try and hide something. But the reality is the Nigerian government has a lot to be embarrassed about. The oil profits that the Nigerian government gets from it are enormous–billions and billions of dollars–and it’s shameful that this money is not used to develop the Niger Delta and the rest of the country. They think by suppressing journalists that they can keep this under wraps. They don’t want the rest of the world to know that they don’t care for their own people and they continue to steal the money. This has been going on for 30 years.

The oil companies are less concerned about journalists. Partly since they know they can get away with it. But they don’t force the government to be responsible with the money and they are also guilty of polluting the environment. There are no real environmental protection measures put in place over there.

CPJ: You were saying the situation might be worse for your translator, Samuel George. What are conditions like for local journalists? Is self-censorship rife?

BERENDS: Most newspapers there will have political biases. You will notice that most newspapers don’t have advertising. So they are funded by individual politicians. Often journalists are bribed. Corruption is rife–including in the press. There are local journalists working for international agencies. They do report on the bad things that are happening–that is in the papers everyday. So there is a certain degree of freedom.

CPJ: Where are you now in terms of the film’s production?

BERENDS: We are done shooting. So I am going into post-production. We have about 100 hours of footage. So I need to hire a good editor, but I am talking to several broadcasters. I hope to get this done in three months or so. We hope to be on air next spring.

CPJ: Do you have any advice for international journalists who wan to report the Niger Delta story?

BERENDS: First, I would ask them to give me a call. There are things to be careful about but it’s not impossible to go there. You need to be very patient. In terms of what ultimately happened to me, this is the third time it has happened to filmmakers in the past year or two. So you have to keep your exposure low. A backup plan needs to be in place and you have to protect your material. I don’t have all the answers now but it’s important to protect your sources. This is very important. After six months I became more laissez faire and, in hindsight, I wish I had put more plans in place to protect my sources and people who had helped me.

CPJ: Aaron, you launched a massive campaign to get Andrew released. What lessons did you learn from the process? 

SOFFIN: I think the two things are: One, it’s important to know the power of people. My faith in grassroots activism was reaffirmed in the massive outreach by people who helped in their own capacity. In addition, reach out to those who have experienced this before and let them guide you through the process. It was very helpful to have the experiences of organizations and individuals who have been through this.