We Come As Friends
Hubert Sauper. France
Austria, 2013, 109 min.
The second installment in a proposed trilogy about the contemporary condition of Africa, We Come As Friends looks at neo-capitalism in South Sudan, from its brave leap into independence to the exploitation of its resources. And through Sauper’s camera, it looks like everyone wants a piece – Chinese oil profiteers, UN officials, American investors and Christian missionaries.
Sauper’s plane circles the torrid terrain of South Sudan as his poetic narration draws parallels between his trip to the continent and the coming of extraterrestrials, between colonisation and a dream. It’s a metaphor that is strung throughout the film – Westerners landing in Africa to poke, to prod, to profit – as Sauper gazes from his aerial view. The handmade airplane, constructed out of tin and canvas, lends itself aesthetically to the metaphor: a strange object circling in the sky above uncharted territory. We see a sun rising and hear the disembodied voice of a Sudanese man, speaking local dialect. He tells us how the West colonized Africa, and the moon is next.
When Sauper’s aircraft eventually touches down, the year is 2011, shortly before the country’s partition. Local radio stations are reinforcing the importance of voting in the referendum, which leads to the South’s separation from the North. Opportunity for peace and prosperity feels tangible. From the perspective of local reporters, politicians and tribespeople, the country is ready to control its own resources without outside influences.
But the reality is far more severe. The border that is drawn between North and South Sudan cuts right through the oil lines. Where once the holy battle between North and South was fought, re-emerges an older “civilizing” pathology – that of colonialism and a reaping of resources.
We’re taken into various situations across the world’s newest state, where outsiders attempt to mould South Sudan to their own visions while “respecting” its independence. In one scene, during the South Sudan Investment Summit, a British investor declares that Sudan needs help and development, so what’s wrong with making a profit while lending a hand? Borrowing from Native American philosophy, the investor proclaims into Sauper’s lens, “Nobody owns any of this. We just borrow it for our lifespan and we should give it back in a better condition than we got it in.”
The way he sees it, if both the Sudanese and investors adopt this ideology, then it would be a win-win situation. Sauper sees it differently, as he shows us the delicate line between humanitarian aid and capital gain from a Western standpoint.
Over the course of six years, the director made We Come As Friends the only way he could – through gentle observation. Armed with only a small camera (and the handmade plane), Sauper embarks on an odyssey that treats the subject like science fiction, yet not in a demeaning way, but rather with disbelief that he is, in fact, witnessing history repeating itself.
At one point in the film, a tribal leader in South Sudan is read a contract by an activist from the capital city of Juba. The contract states that the leader has just leased 2,300 square miles of community land to the Dallas-based company, Nile Trading and Development Corporation (NTD). NTD will have full rights to exploit all natural resources on the leased land. Dramatically, as this moment echoes a time when colonizing Belgium kings forced tribal chiefs to sign contracts to give up their land, the storm outside breaks into a thunderous rage, sounding like war.
Much of the action is seen from the sidelines. Sauper never barges in or asks too many questions. History and the present are contextualized only by what we’re shown, along with Sauper’s sparse voiceover. Cleverly, he films international newscasts broadcasting on TV sets from bars, cafés, office buildings and store windows, to give us a glimpse of the political temperature of a particular scene. We’re on our own to interpret our impressions of all this, and it isn’t always easy.
The camera follows long sequences of action until it becomes uncomfortable. Missionaries declare South Sudan as the “new Texas.” Water supplies are contaminated by Chinese-financed drilling; impoverished villagers live so marginally it appears we may have traveled back in time; a bomb disposal expert is excited at the prospect of IEDs because it keeps him employed; and, there’s the launch of a power plant where South Sudanese choir children praise America in spooky chorus.
By the end of it, as a cover of Nina Simone’s “Wild Is The Wind” is layered on top of spiraling scenes of devastation, we see South Sudan headed for inevitable disaster. Cultural and economic imperialism in Africa is a massive topic to tackle in one feature documentary. But Sauper leaves us with a clearer understanding of the situation and a respect for his methods, though not without questions.