Filmmakers Detained in Nigeria Return

By Beacon Staff

SEATAC, Wash. – Four filmmakers who were detained by security officials in Nigeria say they hope their experience will draw attention to the environmental impact of oil extraction in the Niger River Delta.

The four, who were detained April 12 and accused of traveling in an off-limits area, were met by friends, relatives, supporters and news reporters on their arrival Sunday afternoon at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

They said they were in Nigeria legally and that authorities knew they were there for work on “Sweet Crude,” a documentary about the African nation’s oil industry. Film was seized from the crew, said Sandy Cioffi, director of the documentary

“Things have got to change,” said Cioffi, 46, a film and video professor on sabbatical from Seattle Central Community College.

Cioffi said Nigerian officials are trying to block publicity of damage to the delta environment from oil spills and other consequences of petroleum production, as well as human rights violations. She said military officials seized film from the crew.

In a news conference at the airport, she and producer Tammi Sims, 35, and photojournalists Sean Porter, 25, and Cliff Worsham, 39, said they were given inadequate food during their confinement and were psychologically intimidated but were not physically mistreated.

Sims, the former Tammi Pimley, graduated from high school in Joplin, Mont., and from Montana State University.

Cioffi thanked U.S. officials and Joel Bisina, a Nigerian American and founder of Niger Delta Professionals for Development in Warri, Nigeria, for gaining their release three days after they were detained.

The group left for Nigeria on April 5 and were taken into custody at gunpoint April 12 by Nigerian military officials who stopped them at a checkpoint while they were traveling by boat.

While in custody the group never doubted that friends and relatives were working to free them, she said.

“In the darkest moments when it is easy to give up hope … it’s what got us through,” Cioffi said.

Oil production that benefits Americans has led to military abuses, turmoil and corruption, said Cioffi, who has been working on the film for several years.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, but nearly a quarter of the nation’s daily production has been lost to armed groups that roam the region of creeks and swamps, stealing petroleum for resale. Some also have waged attacks to back demands for release of their leaders and for the return of more oil revenues to the delta area.

Cioffi said third-party intervention is needed to bring about peace talks between the government and militants.

Nigerian officials gave various reasons for holding the crew, asserting that they didn’t have a special permit to work in the country, although the crew had filmed in the country on earlier trips, knew the rules and had business visas and letters of invitation, she said.

Their detention was a “dangerous suppression of journalism,” Cioffi said. “It was very clear we had been targeted for content issues.”