Sandy Cioffi with children in a Niger Delta village. Pamela Dore
The film crew's boat in a waterway off the Escravos River. Pamela Dore

I really thought it was typical harassment, no big deal. But then the junior officer ordered me and my film crew to get out of the boat, a step in the Nigerian military checkpoint routine we'd never experienced before. As we climbed up a rusted chain, residents were pulling up and dropping off cases of bottled water as "gifts," aka the toll to pass by without incident on the river. The soldiers sell it to nearby village residents—a creative way of requiring bribes without exchanging cash.

We were in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, to continue filming for Sweet Crude, a documentary chronicling the devastating effects of oil production in the region—specifically, the systematic theft of vast oil riches from under the feet of a population now living in abject poverty and environmental decimation. On the day we were ordered out of the boat, we were traveling to a small village called Egbema to film a woman who can no longer fish in waters that have fed her family for over 70 years. Ironically, this area is one of the few that has experienced relatively little of the environmental damage that oil production has caused in most of the delta. Until recently, the area had been spared by the luck of the draw—this part of the river had just not been dredged yet. But now, the bunkering—in which oil stolen from cracked pipes is placed on renegade tankers—has overtaken this corridor of the river. Massive oil spills are an everyday occurrence. It is commonly known that the Nigerian military's Joint Task Force (JTF) is complicit in the bunkering; the huge tankers must clear their official checkpoints both coming and going.

I'll never know why the JTF stopped us. We were clearly a ragtag group of Americans—hardly an upscale boat of oil-company executives or anyone of means or importance. Were they actually looking for us? We didn't have our cameras out of the bag at the time. But to the JTF, any Americans knowing details of the abuses in the delta are a danger, particularly if they're savvy to the Nigerian military's involvement in bunkering, kidnapping, and garden-variety crime. The military blames all illicit activity on the militants—MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta)—and the United States seems to buy that line. Any official statements regarding the situation in the Niger Delta are riddled with concern about the "criminal" militancy, some even suggesting that they are terrorists. The U.S. supports the Nigerian military against this insurgency with hardware and military intelligence. MEND does have criminal elements, but is also a political resistance movement. I have found no official State Department expression of concern for the root causes of the unrest.

For two and a half years, I've been chronicling the protracted struggle for justice for the Niger Delta as it shifts toward a more urgent conflict. As the oil companies' extraction methods continue to ravage the environment and the Nigerian government continues to "divert" funds dedicated for development, the Nigerian military has deployed troops to occupy the villages and contain the resistance. This situation has drawn paltry media attention. Since the nonviolent activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995, the only stories about the delta you'll find in mainstream media involve MEND kidnapping oil workers. (Unfortunately, the militants' shift from political demands to violent tactics worked best in terms of getting them media coverage.)

But in all our time here, the military has only ever stopped us to give us a hard time, and it had never taken more than a bit of cheeky dialogue and a playful refusal to pay (we followed the lead of our Nigerian friends) before we were on our way. Since the Nigerian government is pretty friendly with the U.S., it seemed logical enough that we'd worked in the region without serious incident.

This time the situation escalated quickly. First we were told that we were being held at the checkpoint for our own safety—maybe they thought we were being kidnapped? (This is hard to believe, since they never asked if any of us were concerned about the Nigerian man accompanying us, and we gave off no "I am so relieved that you just saved me from being kidnapped!" vibes.) After the safety excuse expired, we were told we could only continue to travel on the river with a paid military escort, which no responsible filmmaker would ever do—it would place the villagers in jeopardy and we'd be in greater danger for being seen with the JTF. Every hurdle the checkpoint officers presented for holding us in custody was overcome: passports, visas, visa applications, etc. But each time we overcame a hurdle, it was replaced by a new pretend reason for holding us. It was chilling.

While the crew and I were placed in the commanding officer's quarters—where, in a bizarre twist, a TV played softcore porn—officers and security personnel outside determined our fate. I tried to negotiate our way out of the situation, loudly and upfront, while my production coordinator, Tammi Sims, quietly sent text messages to our contact in the U.S., Leslye Wood, to let her know we might have a problem.

There is a basic principle in any military situation: The orders soldiers have given you hold until their superior officers pass along new orders. So, if you're allowed to talk to each other, eat, reach in your bag, or use your phone, you do it like crazy before the game changes. My cinematographers, Sean Porter and Cliff Worsham, were "rearranging" their bags for anything that would be considered "evidence." My crew was amazingly calm, smart, and brave. In the few hours we had to do it, we destroyed DVDs, smart cards, tapes, notes, and a camera. In short, everything that could get us convicted of "espionage" and anything that could be used against the people who had worked with us in Nigeria. (Documenting the crisis in the Niger Delta is considered dangerous by the Nigerian government.) Destroying "evidence" was the right thing to do, but devastating nonetheless.

It is a heady concept to be seized at gunpoint, and it's compounded when you feel responsible for the Nigerians who have trusted you—the ones in your notes and on your footage. Unfortunately, I knew that the State Security Services (SSS) were renowned for fabricating evidence, abusing Nigerian journalists, and detaining people indefinitely without charges. As we were being driven from one military base to another, I was seated next to the SSS commander. He was on the phone with his boss when I overheard the words "arrest number" and "charge is sabotage."

Oh my god.

Since we still had our cell phones, I called Tammi, who was in another car, to tell her what I had heard. I had to call rather than furtively send a text because my polarized prescription sunglasses rendered the screen illegible, but without them I was virtually blind. But it was time to tell our U.S.-based team to get us some serious help. So I looked right at the SSS commander and dialed. His knowing smile as I spoke is one of the eerie images I can't shake. In the other car, Tammi turned to Cliff and said, "How do you spell sabotage?" Even under stress, she is an impeccable texter.

They drove the five of us (four filmmakers and our Nigerian guide and friend Joel Bisina) from Warri to Abuja—a dangerous eight-and-a-half-hour drive in trucks with six armed soldiers per vehicle. It was hard to decide if I wanted the drive to end or hoped it would continue forever, since I had no idea what awaited us. I was haunted by thoughts of every prison or torture movie I had ever seen. Damn that Midnight Express, Papillon, and Death and the Maiden.

We asked if we could listen to music on our iPods (to help with our nerves and to burn out the batteries since we had video clips on them we did not want the SSS to find). Huddled in the back, three of us shared one set of headphones while Tammi played DJ. I have never been so happy to hear the Dixie Chicks in my life. Along with Natalie Maines's "Truth No. 2"—"You don't like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth"—came the Pretenders' "Revolution," a long-standing '80s favorite for iconoclasts in the time of Michael Milken and Wall Street greed: "Bring on the revolution, I wanna die for something." But Tammi started by spinning slow comforting songs, including an old spiritual hymn featuring harmonies from my closest friend. It literally made that harrowing ride bearable. It's an iMix that no one wants to need, but we will be forever grateful for having had it.

We would spend the next week detained by the SSS in Abuja, Nigeria, never charged or officially arrested. We weren't physically harmed, just uncomfortable and very scared. Our quarters could have been worse, but hardly matched the "hotel-like" environment described to our families by the State Department though they never saw our rooms. I was held in a room with a flea-ridden mattress, with no air conditioner or fan in a 100-degree environment (a condition that changed after 14 lawmakers stepped up for us). I had sporadic access to food and water. The lack of water was the hardest part. I am struck by and a little embarrassed at how quickly I felt weak and a bit broken in there.

At one point, after sleeping for two hours, I was woken for interrogation. I was questioned four times total—once for six hours. A constant feature of interrogation is the fear of what might come if I failed to give them what they wanted, though I never knew what that actually was. I tried to think of some of the questions as really bad moments from film-fest audience Q&As, just to keep my sanity—it helped. Had it not been for the constant low-grade terror that they would switch tactics to violence, I would have found some of it interesting. Now I can only remember how horrible my own fear smells. It haunts me to think about people who do jobs where they smell other peoples' fear every day. What I can tell you is that intimidation yields bad information. I could not remember basic details that I had no reason to hide.

I used to make that point about torture in political arguments with friends. Many things that were once philosophical are now physical. A member of my family said, "What kind of a country detains someone without charges, who cannot see a lawyer, whom they know is not a real security threat—just to send a message, just to intimidate them, what kind of country?" Well, the United States for one, in addition to Nigeria and countless others. Illegal detention is a blight on our collective soul and has to end. And if anyone being detained is a real criminal, let's hear the evidence and bring him or her to justice. Even one hour held against your will when you're innocent is a terrible burden, let alone the years many have faced.

We were picked up by the military on a river in Nigeria for reasons I'll never fully know. Once they Googled the film title and my name, we were held because the old-guard military in Nigeria does not want this story told. They were open about this. Had I been filming only militants in masks with guns—an image that supports the narrative the Nigerian government wants disseminated—I believe my crew and I would have walked. The truth is that people living in this region have been ripped off and left for dead for half a century. It's a pressing political issue and requires long-term preventive diplomacy, not more AFRICOM troops from the Pentagon. Okay, not sexy as approaches go, but it's what has a shot at averting another African travesty. Ironically, the only footage the SSS confiscated from us was the "peaceful solutions" footage—the "hope" footage, intended to round out the film with a vision for a just Niger Delta past peak oil.

It was only because 14 U.S. lawmakers, led by Senator Maria Cantwell, and countless others in the community advocated courageously that we were released as quickly as we were. As we flew out of the country, I read that the price of oil had reached an all-time high. But I knew that for the first time in my life I had paid the true price of oil. For one week, my crew and I had been denied our freedom and every other basic right so that those in power could control that natural resource with impunity. Here at home, we have abdicated all moral authority to do the same. Hopefully, those U.S. lawmakers who signed a letter on our behalf will use this tiny moment of attention to address the real issues of oil, not just the price of gas. For a start, push for third-party international mediation in the Niger Delta. If they do, our detention was just fine. If they do not, it was awful. recommended

Sandy CIoffi is a Seattle filmmaker. For more information on the film and the Niger Delta, see www.sweetcrudemovie.com.