By Jeff Reichert
We Come as Friends
Dir. Hubert Sauper, France, BBC Worldwide North America
This is the age of the bigger, stronger, faster nonfiction film. Praise is heaped upon those documentaries showcasing exclusive access, famous or elusive subjects, and wildly dangerous shooting conditions. If a filmmaker plans to film the abject, it’d better be the most abject; if he or she plans to film the successful, it’d better be the most successful. Bonus points if a subject is the last, or nearly last, of his or her kind. It’s an arms race out there to capture and stockpile the outrageous and unbelievable, with a pack of camera-carrying, would-be Robert Ripleys chasing the tail of the news cycle to meet the next big festival deadline. Now we imagine our documentarians heroically traversing the globe in the name of storytelling, beaten-up Porta Braces in tow. Meanwhile, life goes on quietly, all over, in myriad fascinating permutations, while the cameras are pointed elsewhere . . .
In Hubert Sauper’s We Come as Friends, the ruggedly handsome filmmaker flies himself from Paris to unstable post–Civil War Sudan in a rickety self-constructed two-seat airplane powered by a motorcycle engine, yet, miraculously, even though he uses his flights a structuring device and often appears onscreen, he never comes across as a self-aggrandizing documentary He-Man. It’s a journey film, but it isn’t about Sauper’s personal travels but rather those of a nation and a people. His footage, much of which he shot himself, and all of which provides rare glimpses of a country on the verge of massive transition, never feels like it’s been trotted out for proud display as we find in so many Hero-Docs, whose filmmakers often seem like children proudly presenting fresh turds to their mothers. Instead of show-stopping record-scratch moments, we find curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, friendliness, an even keel, and a genuine philosophical perspective. Sauper’s whiteness and Frenchness are never in dispute and are often remarked upon by those who he interviews, which, given France’s history of colonial meddling in Sudan, opens the filmmaker up to the threat of danger. But somehow, his dinky aircraft proves a leveler. He’s marked immediately as different. He’s the strange one. The man who flew to Earth.
Sauper introduces us to the Sudan via a series of vertiginous shots taken from underneath his plane. Up seems down and down seems up, land meshes into water that crests back onto strips of land—it’s an apt visual metaphor for a country that’s been topsy-turvy for decades. Filming begins on the eve of a 2011 referendum that proposed to split Northern, Muslim-dominated Sudan from Southern, Christian Sudan and finally, formally, bring to a close the internecine conflict that dominated the country from 1983–2005. It closes on a chilling note: mere months after successful passage of the resolution for independence and the establishment of South Sudan, the world’s newest nation goes to war with its separated sister over oil. Footage of this new extension to an old conflict shot by a soldier captures a sadly all-too-familiar story—black bodies rent asunder while fighting to preserve resources that will go to benefit white men. The terminal point for the other varied forms of oppression Sauper captures in between.
As in his 2005 Darwin’s Nightmare, a film so smart and despairing that it’s hard to believe it was nominated for an Academy Award, Sauper ranges widely throughout We Come as Friends, flitting across the Sudan to spend time with a variety of subjects. Sauper and his small team drop off into remote villages consisting only of scattered wooden huts and make themselves welcome just as they do while interviewing Chinese oil workers, U.N. security forces, bomb sappers, bereaved mothers, missionaries, and others. Most interactions last only a few minutes, and his subjects are never returned to or given “arcs.” At times his camera lingers on the face of a silent villager, staring straight back into the lens. Far from ethnographic excess, these moments feel like a communion—of consciousness connecting across cultural bounds.
“Who are the characters?” the documentary mainstream will wonder. In constructing his film in this fashion, Sauper reminds that “characters” are the provenance of fiction, while “people” should be the stuff of documentary films. Thus he doesn’t make an effort to stretch and shape his subjects’ lives to conform to preconceived narrative expectations. He also remembers that most people are not inherently evil. So while we may find the actions of a group of missionaries from Texas, who come bearing clothes, the Bible, and switches to enforce allegiance, hideous, or the mantras of the business investors inviting their peers to bring industry to South Sudan, only if they plan to “develop the country,” craven, in Sauper’s film they are merely people acting on core beliefs. Thus We Come as Friends is often enraging and sickening, but the film itself never seems aimed at manufacturing outrage or sickness. The closing credits even go so far as to thank all the participants.
Sauper can’t resist more pointed critique at times. After the referendum vote passes, he films a group of U.N. security officers grossly carousing in their heavily fortified compound. As the most offensive of them, a bulging, bald Scot pops a bottle of champagne and attempts to spray the crowd with bubbly, the filmmaker’s camera drifts left, catching a Sudanese woman, clearly a member of the base’s support staff, through the window taking out the garbage. Her country might be free, but what does she have to celebrate? Environmental catastrophe, the displacement of peoples from their traditional lands, the destruction of her culture—independence may mean “freedom,” but more for the forces of colonialism to run amok than for the individuals now able to cast meaningless votes for their leaders. Congratulations, U.N., way to go.
We Come as Friends casts a jaundiced, curious eye at a race of beings who will scar and pillage the Earth that sustains them in order to extract any resource of value with little regard for the damage left; a race that will convince their fellows to lease their homelands and then enslave themselves paying back their lessees. Sauper’s kaleidoscopic tour through all the adverse affects of “progress” in Sudan finds its most complex expression in a sequence celebrating the establishment of a new power plant. As a white representative of the energy company—recently met at the airport by cleaned and pressed Sudanese children singing the praises of “light”—touts how many customers the plant will serve, the realization dawns on the viewer that these villagers were not customers before and likely didn’t ask to become so. But now a service they didn’t ask for has been foisted upon them and capitalism demands they pick up the bill. Meanwhile, as Sudanese dressed in Western clothes look on solemnly and nod thoughtfully, protestors in traditional garb disrupt the ceremony, most notably a group of women wearing comically oversized bras to cover their usual nudity (or perhaps they are wearing them at the behest of an energy company hoping to spice up their ceremony with some family-friendly local color), turning the whole spectacle into a carnival of development run amok.
We Come as Friends relentlessly marches from one interaction to the next, but it never feels as though it’s leading toward some prescribed end. The referendum, which would have been positioned as the finale of a less complex film, happens about an hour in, thus appropriately minimizing its import—there may now be two countries, but little else has changed. The particulars of the election are subsidiary to Sauper’s main aim: to film history as it’s being made and capture the movements of economy that function as drivers. If We Come as Friends is polemical, it’s quietly so. It accumulates evidence of a place gone awry and allows viewers the freedom to decide what’s gone most wrong and predict where it might go wrong next. Unlike most documentaries of its ilk, and most of the subjects Sauper films, We Come as Friends doesn’t believe in easy answers to complex problems. It’s smarter, more complex, and compassionate—an antidote to all sorts of ills, aesthetic, rhetorical, and beyond.