The documentary filmmaker Hubert Sauper came to most American filmgoers’ attention 10 years ago, when he released “Darwin’s Nightmare,” an elegant, deeply unsettling portrait of the arms-and-aid trade to and from the Lake Victoria area of Tanzania.The brutalizing contradictions of colonialism, exploitation, development and evolutionary progress also form the fulcrum of “We Come as Friends,” which Sauper filmed in South Sudan between 2010 and 2012, during the country’s transition into an independent state. Flying a tiny, handmade plane of his own design, Sauper flits around the country, touching down for encounters with locals, U.N. peacekeepers, Chinese oil executives, American Christian missionaries and even activist actor George Clooney, albeit from a distance.The result is a visually stunning, morally disorienting polemic that has more in common with the experimental collages of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard than the work of Michael Moore. Like “Darwin’s Nightmare,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, “We Come as Friends” has been beautifully filmed, with Sauper’s God’s-eye views of his plane’s wing and the African landscape below resembling something Saint-Exupéry might have conjured. Once on the ground, he allows his subjects to speak their minds, rarely challenging even the most troubling assumptions. In one scene, a Chinese businessman, working within the confines of his company’s fenced-in facility, evinces surprise at Sauper questioning whether he knows any local Sudanese. In another, a young missionary couple hand out solar-powered audio Bibles and clothing (they and their colleagues seem unusually preoccupied with the indigenous tribes’ state of undress), while their toddler son eagerly awaits his first gun.
Sauper provides his own narration in “We Come as Friends,” tracing Sudan’s current state back to Queen Victoria who, he reports, had never visited the African continent before divvying it up to suit her country’s needs. The ensuing political, tribal and religious conflicts, he avers, have been stoked and even created by distant superpowers who have benefited from keeping the resource-rich area poor, disenfranchised and chronically unstable.
Although the brief portraits Sauper captures are undeniably vivid, there are moments when the viewer wonders at the politics of parachuting into peoples’ lives — almost literally — to document their distress before popping back out. And the cumulative effect of watching misery, cynicism and good intentions collide teeters perilously on the brink of “Oh dearism,” a term coined by the filmmaker Adam Curtis (“Bitter Lake”) for sincere but fundamentally passive liberal concern.
But the structural design of “We Come as Friends” also feels intuitively correct. Perhaps only a multi-voiced, impressionistic essay can properly capture the dizzying, over-determined realities of globalism, realpolitik and evangelism — political, economic and spiritual — that straight journalism never could. The understanding that Sauper aims to impart — the knotty relationship between empire, religion, geographic exploration and raw greed — is made as clear as the swimming pool NGO apparatchiks can be seen lounging next to in a late scene. South Sudan has once again plunged into civil war and disorder; according to some indices, it’s the world’s newest and most fragile state. “We Come as Friends” captures that vulnerability in a tableau of predation, misery and irretrievable loss.
Unrated. At AFI Silver. Contains some nudity and adult themes, including images of war violence.
In diverse languages, including English, Chinese, Arabic, Ma’di and Toposa, with subtitles. 110 minutes. On Friday and Saturday, the theater will host Q&As with director Hubert Sauper following the 7:15 p.m. shows.