Hubert Sauper’s excellent documentary takes the sardonic title “We Come As Friends.” It might just have well been called “The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same.”
Using a small plane that he helped build from tin and canvas, Sauper flew throughout Sudan before its partition in 2011 and then in South Sudan afterwards, interviewing all manner of folks from government officials, warring tribes, and foreign investors to people in villages. With a keen eye, he questions Chinese oil workers, UN peacekeepers, American evangelists and corrupt politicians. The result is a chilling commentary on modern-day colonialism, racism, arrogance, and religion — all coming together in a classic fight over land and resources.
None of this is new, of course. As some of the villagers point out, Sudan has seen Turks, Greeks, British, French, American, and Chinese all enter the country under the guise of “helping” and “civilizing.”
“We Come As Friends” begins just before the referendum that split Sudan into two. There is the hope among the populace that, this time, things will be different and the country will at last see peace. Radio announcers urge people to get out and vote. Politicians go on about being free of foreigners, and talk up democracy and independence.
Sauper shoots a scene with the leaders of the two countries as the two countries split. In a voice-over he explains that the president of the new South Sudan is the Christian and freedom fighter Salva Kiir Mayadit, supported by the U.S. and good friends with George Bush, who was kind enough to present Kiir with a cowboy hat. On the right is Omar el-Bashir, the Muslim president of Sudan, a wanted war criminal and very friendly with the Chinese.
Indeed, Sauper’s next subjects are Chinese oil workers who take over 300,000 barrels of oil a day out of the land and then refine it. He intersperses his interviews with those of the Sudanese near the refinery who tell him that there is no more land to farm and the water is now poisonous. When Sauper questions a Chinese supervisor about the possible environmental effects of the drilling on the land, he is told simply that “environmental protection is their (the Sudanese) responsibility.”
As an example of Sauper’s ironic editing, the next scene is that of the Chinese workers in their comfortable bunkers watching “Star Trek,” playing pool and eating lots of fresh food. The workers have little contact with the Africans because, as they explain, not many of the Sudanese speak English.
Then there’s the UN ambassador, who boasts of the UN arriving in South Sudan with “one tent, one backpack and one laptop” and now can point to a whole slew of buildings. There’s a model of the proposed development, including an ice cream shop and basketball court added by his daughter, who also hopes to create a safari camp nearby.
An engineer sent to demolish abandoned rockets and defuse land mines wonders if the Sudanese are in fact capable of development. “After all,” he arrogantly points out, “they are 200 years behind the rest of the world.”
In contrast, the next scene portrays an elder Sudanese who very succinctly and intelligently sums up the situation in South Sudan. He notes that all foreigners arrive in his country saying that they are there to help. They back the next “great African leader,” who turns out to be no better than a “gangster.” When an African leader who actually has a vision for his country appears on the scene, “he’ll be killed in a plane crash.”
American evangelists from Texas bring the word of God with solar-powered audio Bibles (in English, of course, which few people can understand). School teachers demand that children wear school uniforms and beat those who show up in traditional garb, and throw their jewelry in the dumpster before sending them back home.
Hopes of a better future for South Sudan are soon dashed. We learn that 10% of the land has been sold to foreign investors, and one-third of the population is “food insecure.” Politicians who exhorted independence from foreigners and self-sufficiency now urge the people to “share the land with the people who have the technology to develop it.” War arrives yet again.
Sauper asks a colleague of the engineer who is most at risk by the land mines. “The only people who are in trouble are the locals; they don’t know where to look,” the man answers.
Which is one of the points poignantly made by “We Come As Friends.” It’s always the locals who lose, whether they are caught between warring factions, rapacious foreign investors, corrupt governments, or well-meaning evangelists. This depressing reality has been the same for hundreds of years.