Hubert Sauper has an idiosyncratic way of filmmaking, hopping around Africa in a two-seat airplane he built himself, powered by the same kind of engine that’s used in predator drones.
“It flies at the speed of a scooter,” the 48-year old documentarian says by phone from New York, where he is promoting “We Come as Friends.” The new film examines neocolonialism in Sudan, focusing on Chinese oil workers, Christian missionaries from Texas, U.N. peacekeepers and other outsiders, whose sometimes questionable interests collide with those of the country’s inhabitants.
A follow-up to the director’s Oscar-nominated “Darwin’s Nightmare” (2004), which looked at the tragic ripple effects of globalization around Africa’s Lake Victoria, “Friends” is the second installment in the Austrian-born, France-based filmmaker’s planned trilogy of documentaries about Africa.
We chatted with Sauper about his powerful yet disarmingly eccentric style of movie-making, which allows him access to people who might otherwise be intimidated but also gets him into occasional hot water. Sauper has been arrested more than once during the making of his African films, including a month spent in detention in Libya in 2011. “They thought I was Mossad or CIA or something,” he says. “Every time I came to a new airstrip or military facility, I was automatically under arrest.”
Your filmmaking technique seems to be a combination of planning and accident.
From my experience, I know what soldiers are doing when I drop from the sky with this little airplane. I know what ambassadors are potentially saying when they address themselves to tribal people. I know what the NGOs say. I know their narratives. Because I know these things, by their nature, somewhat in advance, all I need to do is to catch the right moment and to have that camera.
Like a fisherman, waiting for a fish.
That’s a good metaphor. You’re throwing out your net. In the process, I expose myself to places I don’t want to be. I didn’t dream of spending a month on Libyan air bases, for instance, but that experience shaped my thoughts: “Why are there people running around in uniforms? Where do the uniforms even come from?” I came to the conclusion that only 100 years before, nobody had a uniform in Libya. It was just basically Bedouins in the desert. But uniforms are part of this European heritage. When my co-pilot and I started wearing uniforms, as you see in the movie, we were suddenly respected much more. People called us “Captain.” We’d talk not to foot soldiers, but to the chief directly.
What led you to Sudan, which in 2011 was being carved into a new Christian nation of South Sudan and the Muslim nation of Sudan?
Sudan is a window into history. A big part of the colonial legacy was the division of Africa into 50 little pieces by the Berlin Conference of 1885. In 2011, suddenly the international community decided to make another national border through the biggest country in Africa, cutting through one of the richest oil fields in the country, with an estimated $600 billion worth of oil, not to mention the gold and the uranium and — what will become more important in the future — the water of the Nile.
“We Come as Friends” focuses mainly on the agendas of Westerners in Sudan. But how much responsibility do Africans — particularly the corrupt warlords that you show in the film — have for their own fate?
The wheel can only be turned with hands on both sides. The problem is with the term “the Africans.” People say, “What do you think the Africans want?” But Africans are these warlords and also the children in the villages. Those warlords — all of them, in the case of Sudan — come out of missionary schools, were shaped by missionaries 30 years back into wearing uniforms, marching in step, following orders, believing in Jesus Christ, into executing our — the West’s — vision of saving the world. “We come as friends” is probably the most consequential lie of our civilization.
Your films don’t look like standard documentaries. They’re more visually poetic, and often lack the kind of context we’ve come to expect from the genre.
The word documentary has an ugly undertone: document. I’m not very at ease with it. It has to do with protocol, law, proof, stamps. There’s a school of documentary that claims to represent the truth, to present statistics and people who are specialists, like scientists in white coats to tell the truth. The creative part of my documentaries is not the content, but the form. I presume that people who see my films are interested in some way in the big questions of our times and that they’re reading things and going online, before and after my films, to find the factuality: figures, statistics, numbers, dates, years, names of politicians. I cannot contaminate my film with these things because then it’s not the art form that is so effective. You wouldn’t call me from The Washington Post if it weren’t for the extreme form.
You filmed from 2010 to 2012. What is the situation like in South Sudan today?
South Sudan is in tatters, in total chaos. There was a headline in L’Express the other day: “South Sudan: A Stillborn Country.” There are uncountable women being raped by soldiers, uncountable children living a miserable life, vegetating, malnourished, cut off from the rest of the world, no access to water or even medical care. It’s a chaos that, from my point of view — and also it’s the thesis of the film — is in part created by the fact that under the feet of these people there is this unbelievable wealth, which creates all this franticness around who is going to get it.
What do you hope to accomplish with “We Come as Friends”?
I’m a filmmaker, not a policymaker. Part of the solution is simply starting to see the nature of the problem. The fact that you and I are talking about something that’s happening on the other side of the world is already part of the solution. What I wish to do is to seriously blow a fuse in the things that we’re so certain of. We’re too certain that the problems are created by Africans and that we have to come in with the U.N. to help sort it out.
Are you hopeful?
Yeah, I am, but we have a long way to go. We in Europe are unwilling to admit that people are coming across the Mediterranean to Europe because they are unable to live anymore with dictators, who are our friends, and with systems that we set in place, out of Europe. When you light a house on fire, you shouldn’t be surprised that people run toward you and try to get out. There’s an interesting term in French. It’s called “pompier pyromane.” It means “fireman and arsonist — same person.” Some smart enough Africans keep saying that: “You Europeans, you bring the diseases . . . and the medication.”