An interview with the makers of ‘Quel Souvenir,’ a film about an oil pipeline between Chad and Cameroon

Twelve years after ground was first broken on an oil pipeline between Chad and Cameroon, the documentary film, Quel Souvenir explores the impact of this World Bank sponsored project on local communities from inland Chad to the Cameroonian coast. While the World Bank and oil companies like Exxon and Chevron promised local development along the lines of clean drinking water, school buildings and electricity, the filmmakers find displaced farmers, environmental degradation and local communities left in a state of disarray. Demonstrating a “cautionary tale” of a so-called well intentioned development project gone wrong, the film walks the thin line between presenting the talking heads who can speak to the context and politics of the situation, and everyday farmers, fishermen and families that live day to day with the consequences of the project. The film is currently in its final stages of post-production. Last summer I saw a rough cut of the film here New York City and asked the director Danya Abt (DA) if I could interview her. Together with one of the film’s executive producers, Valéry Nodem (VN), they answered my questions. Before we get to the questions and answers, here’s the trailer.

Why Quel Souvenir? What inspired the project in the first place?

VN: Africa is endowed with a lot of natural resources that attract a lot of foreign investments. But Africans remain very poor, and see the resources leave their countries without any return in terms of development, improvements in their life standards, etc. “Quel Souvenir” was a case study to show how massive investments promoted by the world most powerful corporations and multilateral institutions have been a curse when happening in places where systems are very weak in terms of contract negotiation, environmental and social policies, social justice, etc. The Chad Cameroon pipeline was the largest private investment project in Sub-Saharan Africa, and was promoted by ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Petronas, a consortium of very powerful companies. The project crossed Chad, at the time one of the poorest countries in the world and Cameroon, at the time the most corrupted country in the world. Voices all over the world asked for the project to be postponed so that these countries can build their institutions and their capacity to manage such a large project, but the companies and the World Bank pushed and move forward. As a result, almost 10 years after oil from Doba in Chad was pumped and transported to hungry international markets, thousands of poor farmers and families in Chad and Cameroon are still waiting to receive a compensation for losses they endured from the pipeline crossing their homes, farms and other livelihoods. The whole idea of “Quel Souvenir” is to give a voice to those who are the most affected by projects like the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, but never properly consulted.

DA: The name “Quel Souvenir” is a reference to something we saw all up and down the pipeline route—farmers who had lost mango groves or access clean drinking water due to construction of the pipeline would use receive sheets of corrugated metal as compensation for their loss, put a new roof on their house and write “Souvenir du Pipeline” across it. One man we interview in the film received an ESSO (Exxon-Mobile’s parent company) backpack as a reward for reporting an oil spill on his land. In contrast to the promises that were made before construction began—long-term jobs, schools buildings, paved roads, electricity—the actual souvenirs of the pipeline are pathetic.

Who is the main audience of this film?

VN: The film is an educational tool primarily addressed to anybody interested to learn about where some of the oil we pump in our cars is produced, how it impacts other people lives, and how we as final consumers have a role to play. More specifically, it targets civil society groups in the [global] South mobilizing communities to claim their rights, researchers, universities, and the large public.

DA: Quel Souvenir raises fundamental concerns about the nature of “development” projects backed by the World Bank and sends up a red flag for any country that is considering one. It is also a cautionary tale about the enormous impactive of the extractive industries and resonates strongly with those concerned about the environmental impact of an enormous project currently being considered in the U.S., the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The film visits local communities along the Chad-Cameroon border to demonstrate how the oil pipeline has impacted local communities? How did this type of narrative style come about during the shooting of the film?

DA: The producers of the film, Brendan Schwartz and Valery Nodem, were both civil society members working in Cameroon and had been working on issues of compensation around the pipeline for many years. They had good relationships with village leadership and people claiming compensation so it wasn’t difficult to find the stories we were looking for. Although there was usually no way to contact a village in advance to let them know we were coming—somebody might have a cell phone but often not—we were warmly welcomed everywhere we went.

Having really excellent access to firsthand accounts of the pipeline and a huge number of stories and wonderful storytellers to choose from, we decided to structure the story around the personal narratives of the people whom the pipeline most effected.

Can you talk about some of the challenges in portraying the lives of local communities impacted by the pipeline versus bringing in “experts” in economics and politics that could explain the situation?

DA: Quel Souvenir is a film that stays local while telling a global story. If anything positive came out of the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline it is that it greatly strengthened the need for and the capacity of local civil society organizations. The “experts” of the film are those Chadian and Cameroonian civil society members who understand the context and the global implications of the project, and they provide the thread that stitches the story together.

The film documents an economic project financed by the World Bank that started in 2000. How have things changed since you were filming on the ground? What type of challenges do you face in producing a film that is up to date with an ongoing situation that the population in North America and the Global North, it would seem, know very little about?

VN: Since we filmed on the ground about 3 years ago, there have been a lot of changes. Many farmers and communities that we interviewed were compensated, because we brought back from the trip all along the pipeline hundreds of complaints from communities and put them on the face of COTCO, the company representing the consortium in charge of exploiting the pipeline. Also, Chadian and Cameroonians recently filed a complaint with the IFC, the financial arm of the World Bank, and they have been vsiting countries, and will make recommendations which for most of them will fix some of the projects actions that violated World Bank Directives. This is a very positive thing as well. We can also mention the fact that communities are more aware of their rights, as some projects are crossing areas where the pipeline passed as well, and local communities are fighting for stronger regulations and treatement because they “learned the lesson”.

First, we did the film after working for years with a lot of organizations in the US and Europe very active around extractive issues and their impacts on local communities. Most of them were working in their own context already to raise awareness, so that people will be better informed around these issues. Second, people in the global North are more connected to these issues than they think they are, and tools like Quel Souvenir can help to show the link between people here and people there, so that consumers can act on this side of the ocean asking for the respect of people’s dignity.

What do you ultimately hope viewers will feel and do after seeing the film?

VN: Our hope was that people seeing the film will be educated about this issue, will make the clic and say “That’s the gas we put in our cars everyday, we can’t tolerate this!” The US government is planning to have 25% of its oil come from Africa by 2025, and people in the US can support efforts demanding better regulations and transparency around the oil sector, which is still very opaque and not benefiting African people.

We were also hoping that viewers will be more active and inclined to find more information about this project and similar projects in Africa and other parts of the world, to see the pattern.

DA: Divest from fossil fuels—ride a bike, buy local goods, and if you have investments look closely at them and make sure you’re not profiting off of the misfortune of others.

What can we hope for next? Is there a theatrical or DVD release in the works?

DA: We are currently fundraising to complete the fine cut of the film and will be doing the film festival circuit later this year. For more information on how to support the film and future screenings, visit our website or contact Danya Abt.

* Adam Esrig studied international affairs at The New School and lives in Brooklyn. He also contributed to The Encyclopedia of South Africa (2011) and co-authored an essay on African film with Sean Jacobs.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.