Cantwell intercedes on behalf of "Sweet Crude" crew, detained in Niger delta

by AMY ROLPH, Post-Intelligencer

Four Seattle filmmakers have been detained in Nigeria, accused of traveling illegally in the Niger Delta.

The film crew was gathering footage for the documentary "Sweet Crude," which examines the oil industry's impact on Nigeria's economy and environment. Seattle-based Vérité Coffee is financing the project.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was lobbying the Nigerian government Monday to release the film crew. And after denying the four counsel, the Nigerian officials finally allowed a representative of the U.S. Embassy to talk with the filmmakers.

Director Sandy Cioffi, a Seattle Central Community College instructor on sabbatical, was leading the film crew through the vast wetland region in the southern part of the country. Government security forces, who are fighting militants, have declared the region a security zone. Outsiders can't travel there without the consent of authorities.

The group was seized Saturday for flouting the ban and was to be flown to the city of Abuja. They entered the country legally on April 5, having notified authorities about their intentions to film, according a statement from the film's Seattle staff. They were traveling by boat when arrested.

A lawyer has been retained to help the crew, but has so far been denied contact with the detainees.

"Nigerian officials claim the group is being 'detained for investigation' in accordance with Nigerian law," the film's staff said Monday in a statement. "However, the Americans have been denied access to legal representation. Nigerian law evidently stipulates that detainees either be released or charged within 48 hours. No charges have been filed at this time."

Cioffi's crew consisted of at least one former student from Seattle Central's Film and Video Communication Program, photojournalist Cliff Worsham. Other members of the crew are photojournalist Sean Porter, a University of Washington graduate, and producer Tammi Sims.

Joel Bisina, a peace mediator and founder of Niger Delta Professionals for Development in Warri, was traveling with the crew and also has been detained.

Monday afternoon, the Northwest Film Forum was lobbying U.S. senators to demand that the filmmakers be released. The film forum's blog reported that Cantwell had been supportive, but the blog's readers were asked to e-mail the senator's staff nonetheless.

"My office has been in contact with the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, the Nigerian Embassy in the U.S., and Sens. (John) Kerry and (Russ) Feingold with the Foreign Relations Committee to ensure the release of the four filmmakers," a statement from Cantwell's office read. "I will continue to push for their quick and safe return."

News of the crew's arrest sent shockwaves through Cioffi's local support base.

"On Saturday morning about 1:30 in the morning I got a phone call from the crew in Nigeria," said Leslye Wood, a spokeswoman for the "Sweet Crude" project. "That's how I learned about the events that were unfolding."

She communicated with the crew via text message for a while, but then communication abruptly stopped. Wood said she assumes that their cell phones were taken way.

Jodi Hall, owner of Vérité Coffee, said that she's praying for the crew's safe release, and that maybe some good will come out of the arrests.

"Nobody knows what's going on there. Maybe this will help create some awareness," she said.

Vérité means "truth" in French, and Hall said she supports cinéma vérité -- a method of documentary filmmaking. "Sweet Crude" was a documentary made in that vein, and Hall said she is proud to support Cioffi's efforts to bring awareness to the oil-industry's impact on Nigeria.

"This is a story that our press doesn't talk about," she said.

Hall said Cioffi did much of her editing and meetings for the film at the Vérité Coffee shop in Madrona. The director has been working on the film for more than two years and has made several trips to Nigeria.

Wood said this trip was to gather final footage for the film, which doesn't have a release date yet.

But a "work-in-progress" version of "Sweet Crude" debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival last year, selling out the University District's Neptune Theatre.

Cioffi has produced and directed a number of films, including "Crocodile Tears," "Just Us," and "Terminal 187."

Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, pumps its crude from the Niger Delta, which remains deeply impoverished despite the natural bounty. Armed groups roam the region of creeks and swamps, stealing crude oil for resale and engaging in other criminal activities.

Some gunmen also launch attacks seeking to pressure the government to release their leaders and send more government-controlled oil revenues on the region. Their attacks have trimmed nearly one-quarter of Nigeria's daily crude output, helping to send oil prices soaring to historic highs in global markets.

The government considers all the gunmen criminals.

This isn't the first time foreigners have been picked up in the Niger Delta in recent months as security forces have stepped up efforts to quell unrest there.

Several foreigners, including two other documentary filmmakers, were expelled from the country on alleged visa violations. An American aid worker, long a resident in Nigeria, was arrested with those filmmakers and was charged with spying. The charges were later dropped, and she was released.

Sal Tonacchio, a colleague of Cioffi's at Seattle Central, said the energetic instructor is known for being quick on her feet and resourceful -- and he's hopeful about her release.

"If they're acting in good faith, they'll realize she's just someone who wants to tell a story -- nothing underhanded going on here," he said.

article originally published at http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/358989_film15.html?source=mypi.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey