Seattle filmmaker searches for peace in Niger River Delta

Mangrove trees rise above the creeks of the Niger Delta, where forests give way to open beaches.

That's the Nigeria that Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi remembers. But it was the oil and conflict hidden amid the landscape that drew her there this summer.

Cioffi, 44, a professor in Seattle Central Community College's film and video communications department, visited Nigeria's southern coast in August to shoot a documentary on the people of the Niger Delta. She had first visited Nigeria in 2005 when she was hired to film construction of a library there.

During that trip, Cioffi learned about the impact of oil on the delta, and of the growing anger of villagers who have no running water or electricity, though the ground beneath their feet produces most of their country's oil riches.

"I knew I had to go back to do a piece on the current moment," she said.

Tension between the Nigerian federal government and rebels from delta villages has been rising, with local extremists demanding more autonomy and a greater share of oil wealth.

Villagers and rebels accuse the military of crimes, including murder and rape. In response to violence and poverty, rebels began escalating attacks on oil pipelines in January, kidnapping foreign oil workers as well.

The Nigerian government says the military presence is vital to protecting foreign workers and oil production. Rebel attacks at one point cut Nigeria's oil production by 455,000 barrels a day out of a total of 2.5 million barrels, The New York Times reported in February.

Now Cioffi hopes to influence the ending of her documentary, "Sweet Crude."

Along with fellow filmmakers, she sent copies of a peace proposal to parties she interviewed while filming, including oil-company executives and Nigerian federal officials. She said she met with delta rebel leaders in late August and they agreed with her portrayal of their demands.

The proposal calls for drastic changes, asking oil companies and the Nigerian government to renegotiate all contracts and to plan and pay for environmental remediation in the delta.

Cioffi said she contacted several U.S. senators, hoping they would lobby the United Nations to step in to mediate.

Can one woman's efforts help bring peace to the region? Cioffi said that's a question she often asks herself.

"There are times when I think I'm insane for thinking that I can," she said.

The film, funded by Jody Hall, who owns Vérité Coffee in Seattle, will be completed next year. Cioffi said she will apply to enter the movie in the Sundance Film Festival and see if HBO would be interested in airing it.

Locally, Hall said she hopes to work with a Seattle theater to screen the documentary and host post-screening discussion groups on the film at her coffee shops.

Cioffi landed in Lagos, a Nigerian coastal city, in early August before heading to "the creeks" — the forests and beaches to the east that are home to scattered villages near the port city of Warri.

Acid rain and dirty water, caused largely by oil production, eat holes in villagers' fishing nets, reducing the nets' lifespan from decades to less than a year, Cioffi said.

Tribal elders told her they remember a time when animal calls rattled forests in the night.

"And now it's virtually silent there. ... It's exceedingly quiet," Cioffi said, calling that another outcome of environmental devastation.

The U.S. Department of Energy cites Nigeria as the fifth-largest exporter of oil to America.

According to the department, more than 4,000 oil spills have occurred in the Niger Delta since 1960. Gas flaring for oil extraction has resulted in more pollution, killing mangrove trees and contaminating seafood.

The U.S. diplomatic mission to Nigeria says the U.S. hopes to help "in improving the lives of the residents in the Niger Delta" but does not condone hostage-taking by local rebels.

Mary Ella Keblusek, associate producer of Cioffi's documentary, says the crew members' trip to the creeks brought them close to the people there, helping the filmmakers understand the rebels' demands.

"Almost nobody's in the Niger Delta the way we were," Keblusek said. "The consulate was just shocked we were going. They thought we were nuts."

But Keblusek said even if the filmmakers' proposal does not succeed, "it's at the very least saying, you know, people have more potential and more ability to do something for the good than they actually imagined."

Seattle-based filmmaker Sandy Cioffi spends a lot of time at Madrona's Vrit Coffee working from her laptop on her project, "Sweet Crude," a documentary about the people of the Niger River Delta. (BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
"Sweet Crude"

For more information on the documentary and to view a trailer, visit