A naked boy with a plastic bottle meanders down a dirt road, unaware of the cruel history of his land and unprepared for its future. Spears are traded for Kalashnikovs. Foreigners drill for oil, children sing in the dust. Missionaries hand out solar-powered audio Bibles. And as twilight descends over the grasslands, a tribal chief has tears in his eyes after selling his riches for a pittance.
“We Come as Friends” is a visceral journey into how colonialism, globalization and corruption have spoiled much of Africa. Directed by Hubert Sauper, the documentary is a catalog of injustices — some born out of naiveté, but most by design — that have overrun South Sudan, the world’s most endangered nation since the day it won independence from Sudan in 2011.
The film, which opens Aug. 21, is a ride-along through poverty and greed, swindles and death. Sauper travels from village to village in a homemade silver plane he calls a lawn mower with wings. He is greeted with fascination, joy, curiosity and suspicion. On each stop, he shows the degradation of land and people, stretching from 19th century European colonialism through the Cold War and into today’s shifting global order, where Chinese oil workers and speculators are the continent’s latest exploiters.
“It’s about the human condition and the extremes and the collisions of empires and cultures,” said Sauper, an Austrian-born wanderer and provocateur. “A saying by Mark Twain was my mantra for this film: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ We know the stories, but we don’t acknowledge that they happen over and over. The metaphor and the ironies of repeating perversion.”
Africa is a prism through which to gauge the fortunes and misadventures of the world’s rising and falling powers. The film also hints at the tribal enmities that in 2013 would erupt into a civil war that has killed tens of thousands, displaced more than 2 million and is aggravating an impending famine that threatens 50,000 children. But much of “We Come as Friends” — a euphemism for the ages — echoes with the schemes and broken promises of outsiders.
“Let me tell you that people such as Europeans and Americans went away from their homes and began to colonize other places, which they took by force,” an old man said in the film, as if recounting an eerie bedtime story. “There was a lot of fighting and they divided Africa into sections … and later they called them ‘free nations.’ After that they went high into space and took the moon. Did you know the moon belongs to the white man?”
Sauper is a subversive out to expose the crimes of the powerful against the weak. His earlier documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare,” nominated for an Academy Award, examined how Nile perch from Lake Victoria in Tanzania were shipped to international markets while locals faced the threat of famine. His 1998 “Kisangani Diary” tracked thousands of Rwandan refugees wandering through violent jungles, a people described as “knowingly forgotten, written off by the rest of the world.”
The tone and style of “We Come as Friends” are similar to “Virunga,” a 2015 Academy Award-nominated documentary about oil exploration endangering villagers and mountain gorillas in and around a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both films explore the creeping insinuations of outsiders and the bewilderment of locals, some of whom oppose what’s happening and others who become complicit.
Sauper speaks in a whisper but often finds himself in trouble. His small film crews have endured malaria and marauders. During the making of “We Come as Friends,” his equipment was stolen and his co-pilot was shot at in an ordeal that left two attackers dead in neighboring Kenya. He illuminates abuses that are so surreal they verge on parody; his cinematography is woven with arresting images, such as a dust storm or a black child at a garbage dump who appears to be floating on a sea of clear plastic bottles.
“A masterfully composed and suitably outraged look at the neocolonialist exploitation of South Sudan,” wrote Rob Nelson in Variety, adding that “We Come as Friends” is often “beautifully photographed, which serves to make the horror even more pronounced.”
The Hollywood Reporter said “Darwin’s Nightmare” and “We Come as Friends” were a “searing indictment of a diseased system, though, much to Sauper’s credit, his films feel rather loose instead of overly editorialized or preachy, giving the audiences the impression they have arrived at the disturbing conclusions by themselves.”
Those conclusions arise from cultural differences. In one scene, Texas missionaries are intent on putting socks and shoes on naked village children. They appear to mean well, but the Americans, proselytizing in a harsh Eden they don’t understand, impose Western standards and a bit of modernity in a comical moment that underlines centuries of colonialism.
“The minute he has socks, he’s doomed,” said Sauper, 49, who lives in France. “He’ll grow up needing to buy more and more socks. He’ll become a guard at an oil field, and he’ll shoot at his brother.”
Sauper’s fascination with the world’s beguiling rhythms began when he was a boy in the mountains of Austria in the decades after World War II. “The demons of the Third Reich were very much alive in the adults,” he said. “We all see Nazis in the movies; I saw them in my schoolyard.” His parents — father, a writer; mother, a singer — ran an inn and befriended an American general who sent soldiers to the hotel on furlough.
The town, said Sauper, became an idyll for “crazed-out LSD dudes coming off the Vietnam War and old Nazis. A collision of worlds.” He said the experience helped shape his aesthetic as a filmmaker. “What’s behind the image?” he said. “What’s behind the appearance?”
He added that Africa’s absurdity and pain lay bare the spoils of history and globalization. “This mill of madness,” said Sauper, who’s working on a new project about cinema as propaganda, “it’s all so connected that it’s almost too good to be true for a filmmaker. You find more than you look for. It’s fantastic.”
South Sudan is a disturbing setting to unravel Africa’s and the world’s facades. After colonial and regional failures, the new country, with a population of about 11 million, offered slight hope that oil and natural resources could lift it above the continent’s despair. Much of the world’s gaze was focused on South Sudan until, just 10 days after its independence referendum, attention was diverted to the Arab uprisings of 2011.
South Sudan today is torn by civil war largely between the Dinka and Nuer tribes that has led to mass rapes, village burnings and the castration of boys. Peace negotiations resumed this month. But the country has devolved into a tale of past sins and fresh atrocities, a land with looted hospitals and only about 200 miles of paved roads.
“The country today is two camps of two warlords,” Sauper said. “It’s really about whose clan will sign with Chevron and other oil companies. That’s what’s at stake. They are pushed into a climate where there’s nothing to do but freak out…. It’s like a cat biting its own tail, but to blame them alone is insane.”
With a silver plane and an insurrectionist’s zeal, Sauper drops in from the sky to capture indelible images: Chinese oil workers watching “Star Wars” while discussing following the footsteps of European colonizers; a man wearing tribal paint and a leopard skin dancing through a crowd that has come to hear a U.S. ambassador talk about progress and electricity; and a village chief bereft after being informed he has sold the natural resources on his tribe’s 600,000 hectares for $25,000 to a Texas development company.
“Our fathers were warriors. Strong fighters,” said the chief. “But now I am in trouble. My people think I have given away our land.”
Members of his tribe gather. They look over the contract, some understanding, some not. The chief is in disbelief; a solitary, bent figure in the night. “The old man is the [symbol] of the old life,” said Sauper. “He’s an outcast. He won’t drive a four-wheel-drive Jeep. He won’t have a cellphone. He was manipulated by outside forces.”
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