The POV Interview: Hubert Sauper in Conversation with Peter Wintonick
Veteran doc directors discuss colonialism, flying and filmmaking
By Peter Wintonick • Published June 29th, 2016 • Issue 99, Fall 2015
When Peter Wintonick down to talk to Hubert Sauper in the summer of 2013, no one knew that it would be Peter’s last interview. He seemed healthy then—excited to be spending time with two doc-makers, the veteran Sauper and Robin McKenna, a filmmaker whose adaptation of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift he was planning to produce. Sauper’s film We Come as Friends is now being launched commercially in North America, McKenna has been working hard on The Gift and we all continue to mourn the passing of our great friend Peter Wintonick, whose last gift to POV is this interview, which has been edited by Robin for us. (Read more memories of Peter Wintonick in POV #93)
We Come as Friends has won numerous commendations at festivals, including the World Peace Prize at the Berlinale, the Cinematic Bravery award at Sundance and—Peter would have loved this—the Wild Dreamer award at Zagreb’s Subversive Film Festival. Dan Schindel in the online journal Nonfics sums the film up well: “A devastating, haunting, but absolutely necessary travelogue of South Sudan. This film is an instructional in how imperialism in Africa has not died off, but merely taken on a new form.”
— Marc Glassman
The day we visited Peter Wintonick’s friend Hubert Sauper, Peter had just arrived back from Burma. He landed in Amsterdam (insisting he didn’t need sleep), picked me up at the edge of Paris, and we drove south to Sauper’s hidden farm in the countryside. We arrived to find the place empty, with barn swallows nesting in the corner and last night’s salad abandoned on the counter. I fell asleep, waking up to find Hubert and Peter already deep in conversation, drinking chickory coffee (“poor man’s coffee,” said Sauper). I think it was summer solstice, the longest day of the year. As daylight faded, we cooked dinner and made a bonfire and talked about African dictators. In the morning, we flew kites on Sauper’s airstrip—where he lands his homemade airplane Sputnik (when it’s not being held hostage by Kenyan authorities). He harnessed us in the paraglider, and we experimented with flying. I think when the wind shifted, even Peter was airborne for a moment. Then Hubert and Peter began watching scenes from the film together and embarked on a three-hour winding conversation. The following is an abridged version.
— Robin McKenna
Somewhere in France, June 2013
PW: Peter Wintonick
HS: Hubert Sauper
PW: So. After the great success and all the ensuing drama of Darwin’s Nightmare, what provoked you to begin again? Has it been hard to follow up such a world smash? Did harassment and court cases make you want to leave it all behind?
HS: It certainly changed my life since that time. I had to figure out if I wanted to be a 100 per cent urban person or find myself a country place. So I got this old farm and started digging a garden and redoing the roof with friends. I always need something to work on, either intellectually or manually. I need to alternate between films and writing, and…putting nails into wooden boards.
PW: There’s a similarity between gardening and filmmaking, I think: seeding, researching, finding what’s appropriate in this little micro-environment.
HS: Yeah, it’s as you say. It’s a seed you put out of an idea, and then you kind of spiral around the idea, and try to feed into it your own experiences and the things you’ve got left to say. For 15 years, my mind and my body have been inhabited by journeys into very strange places in Africa. My first encounter with Africa was when I made Kisangani Diary.
PW: The most harrowing film I’ve ever seen.
HS: I came to see something I’d never seen, which I wasn’t ready to see. My camera saw it, in an even more direct way. When I worked on the film, seeing the images again was a really haunting experience. I was 28 and I was totally bewildered by my experience. And angered, of course, and…
PW: Because you were a bit naïve, and it happened to you. Later you made Darwin’s Nightmare, which is more sophisticated.
HS: More of an analysis, yeah.
PW: About the chain of consequences of what happened to the environment.
HS: Kisangani Diary was not a reflection, it was a reflex—when you watch a house burn down, you don’t write a script.
PW: You were there at the right time.
HS: Or the wrong time.
PW: Was there something dissatisfying about Darwin’s Nightmare that made you want to go back again?
HS: I saw the limits of the intellectual discourse with Darwin’s Nightmare. The problem is that, as a filmmaker, you always have high goals that you want to express, and then it sometimes cooks down to, “Oh, I’m not going to eat this bad fish anymore.”
PW: That’s kind of the reductive nature of filmmaking. When you take five years and condense it into 90 minutes.
HS: But even the way people read films is sometimes so reductive. There’s this French saying: “_Quand le sage montre la lune avec son doigt, l’idiot regarde le doigt._” I’m sure you know that too. I’m sure people congratulate you on having photographed Chomsky in a nice light [laughs].
HS: And then people were trying to recruit me for their causes—you know, ecological movements, consumer associations, anti-whatever. The pattern of good and evil is so inscribed in people’s brains: help us find the good guys and thanks to you [the filmmaker], we found out the bad guys we’re chasing.
PW: Darwin’s Nightmare is about empathy, which is good to convey, but it’s generally an observational doc. Then people project onto you, Joan of Arc, Johnny of Arc, that you’re carrying the flag.
HS: Sometimes that’s the most magical thing about documentary: you just put two words next to each other, and suddenly it becomes this crazy metaphor or crazy new thing. And that’s all we do, basically; we put together pieces of what we see into an order, a context, and then it kind of flows into a million people’s brains and becomes another thing.
PW: Yeah, that’s the thing you can’t control.
HS: What comes back out of their brains. That’s a whole other discourse, about responsibility for what your images do. You know the 1945 U.S. soldiers who took pictures of Auschwitz have also inspired other people to dig mass graves, [showing] them how to do it, which wasn’t exactly the photographers’ aim. The Battle of Algiers was about torture and terrorist techniques in Algeria and it was used by a lot of Latin American dictatorships, to teach how to torture. Pontecorvo, the director of the film, was confronted with this truth. People said, ‘What do you make of it, your film inspires torture?’ What could he say?
PW: We Come as Friends can be said to complete a trilogy beginning with Kisangani Diary, which deals with the continuing impact of colonialism in Africa. I feel that the new film is even more sophisticated than Darwin’s Nightmare. What has made you dig deeper this time?
HS: Well, to try to analyze it, the biggest catastrophe of the last century, the Second World War, was basically a showdown of all this foolishness and madness and meanness of centuries of colonialism. Hannah Arendt said that racism was the main trait of colonialist imperialism and Nazism. When I was a kid in Austria my teachers were still from the active Third Reich generation. So in my own life, in my own skin, I kind of touched the spirit of Nazism, you know? I grew up in a very remote place, where the yodeling Tyrolean schoolmaster was also potentially a former gatekeeper in a concentration camp. So these extremes were very normal ingredients of my growing up.
In Africa, I found these patterns again. I think the discourse of the NGOs and UN and politicians and the EU in Africa is similarly hypocritical to the discourse I knew as a kid, about the beauty of the mountains, and how everyone is happy, but there’s this other, far darker side. And people don’t want to see it.
But once you’re trained—as you are—at hearing a discourse and understanding the other side of it, when you see through things, suddenly a completely different kind of truth starts to unfold.
PW: Yeah, it’s a bit like a Faustian bargain. You’ve got this knowledge, that everything you hear you should distrust or remain skeptical [of], and you can’t get rid of it, even if you want to believe somebody. Bit like the tree of knowledge…
HS: There’s a bite in the apple. But what do you do with it? The chance we have as documentary filmmakers is just amazing, because we have all these ways not only to suffer from impressions we have in life, but also find expression in them. And then not only express, but also share it with an amazing amount of people. And that’s the way to survive this dilemma.
PW: It’s not really about finding solutions to offer: it’s more about exposing injustice and offering revelations.
HS: You know, we can sometimes figure out the nature of a problem, and that’s already a big way towards the solution. I like to think of this example: when the ecology movement started to exist, but didn’t really exist in people’s brains yet, a marine biologist and writer said, ‘Look, we can’t spray toxins on the field because it’s going to be bad.’
PW: This is Rachel Carson, 1962.
HS: Yeah, and what she did was find the metaphor. Silent Spring [Carson’s book]: birds aren’t going to sing anymore. And people are like, ‘Birds aren’t going to sing?’ The first reflex is, alright, we can live without birds, you know? But deep in ourselves we know there’s something badly wrong. So I think that’s a genius stroke, to find the metaphor. That made the ecological movement grow at a much faster pace.
PW: So, the practicalities: you built Sputnik, your own plane, and flew it to Africa. You were bypassing official channels, I guess. It made you portable, but also made you more obvious. I was thinking about the swallows in your house, nesting there. You’re like a swallow. There’s a freedom given to you by flight.
HS: First of all, to work on the plane gave me time to think about the film. From up high, I was in the position to analyze the connecting issues. And the main connecting issue is that every empire is aggressive: it imposes, expands and colonizes—just nullifies anything in its way. The plane for me became this thing that was going to protect me, bring me to unknown places and out of them…as in the science fiction movies, beam me out of here.
PW: Make a getaway.
HS: Yeah, before the military would ask more questions. That happened a few times. It was kind of fun too—a game that keeps you very awake.
PW: Did they shoot at you?
HS: No, they didn’t, or just missed without us realizing it. The South Sudanese Army actually shot down a big UN helicopter and everyone from the Russian crew was dead. That was in Pibor, close to where we were in our flying tin can.
PW: But you were also flying into little remote airstrips. It made you obvious, a couple of white guys getting out…
HS: Yeah, the thing is, in Central Africa, planes are not completely unusual. They’re flying doctors sometimes, and the UN comes. Usually planes come and either drop bombs or bring some aid, so either it’s very bad or very good. It was hard for people to understand that we were coming to say hello and take pictures [laughs].
PW: Yeah they’re either dropping bombs or dropping aid. Virillio talks about the “information bomb.”
HS: Yeah, the new life pattern bomb. Plane from the West lands and brings…
HS: Yeah, but the airplane also is the ultimate symbol of colonial superiority, not just in technological but also religious terms, too, because Jesus was supposedly beamed down from the sky and went back up. Came down and brought his message and flew off. That’s the metaphor they used, the Christians, right?
Angels have wings, so the plane itself is so loaded as a symbol. It’s also phallic, you know? Cargo planes, they look like big penises, flying white penises, penetrating into the heart of the black continent. It’s a perverse metaphor, the whole thing.
PW: And a symbol of power too.
HS: I was trying to subvert that and ridicule it. My plane is not superior; it’s a flying lawnmower, really. And the good moments that I was hoping for happened a few times when we landed in places and people were just laughing at us and took us as clowns, which we were. And immediately, we had a good relationship with them.
Of course, we were not completely inoffensive, because we had, like almost every white person in Central Africa, a second agenda. People work for the CIA, and of course they don’t have “CIA” marked on their T-shirt. When we got closer to people, they’d ask, “Who are you really with?” And we’d say, “No, we’re just making a film, a documentary, and we’re kind of nice people.” But ultimately, we came to terms with the fact that we also had a double agenda. We couldn’t explain to most of the people we met in power positions what we were doing.
PW: Well, that’s honest. It was also a journey of exploration and the agenda was not completely clear to you. Did you ever get arrested?
HS: Yeah, we got arrested. Arrest doesn’t mean you’re in a prison cell. Arrest means you’re in a house and they say you must not leave and a soldier is standing there to protect you, basically.
But, yeah, there was one scene where we were literally surrounded by 400 armed soldiers. We weren’t freaking out of fear you know, because why should they kill us—it’s South Sudan, and generally, as a Westerner you were not an enemy at this point, because Westerners would bring aid, come as friends.
PW: Did you have general permission to enter the country?
HS: I had official papers for specific flights and landings but, of course, as soon as we were in the country we were just like free radicals—flying wherever we wanted to fly.
PW: How many countries did you have to fly through?
HS: Italy, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, then South Sudan, and we ended up in Kenya.
PW: And once you got to a destination did you have any trouble accessing permissions?
HS: We had been in South Sudan before getting there by plane. We went to the Ministry of Information and said, “Look, are there any areas where military would be likely to shoot us down, where should we not go?” And they, of course, didn’t know shit, and were like, “You just shouldn’t come here.” [PW laughs.] And we said, “Yeah, but we want to do this trip!” Our pitch was that we were on the way from Europe to South Africa, and this beautiful country was on the way, and we wanted to get through. And we needed to stop many times because we had a small plane and we needed to refuel.
PW: Doing a tourist film.
HS: Yeah, of course we were also filming and documenting our own journey—that was true too!
PW: Cinema in the past has been a tool for colonialism, as has television. The act of filmmaking is an essential act of voyeurism. Consider the history of image-making in Africa: is it ever possible to escape the colonial eye?
HS: It’s history, so you can’t escape it. The worst truth is that you want to share your thoughts and ideas with the world, but it’s only half of the world that sees your work, only the part of the world where people are going to sit in nice, warm, heated cinemas. Obviously it’s not going to reach easily the people who also have a right to know about what we think is important to share.
PW: But you’ll work to somehow get it out that way too.
HS: Yeah, part of our concept was that we would screen, on the plane at night with a little projector, films of us flying, and make people laugh. The film in progress was screened on the shore of the Nile and people were screaming with laughter and amazed. And we filmed that. I didn’t put it in the film, because it was making us [into] these friendly, well-meaning NGO idiots—you know? [PW laughs.] Which we were, also—being the good guys. But we also did it because it was a great way to share things, share food and hang out with people—our way to give back some images—but none of this in the film. The more typical thing, of course, is to take pictures and run back home.
PW: Or else, in the case of Burma VJ [the controversial, award-winning Danish documentary], appropriate the images and process them.
HS: Well, first of all, being a Westerner, you cannot go to the Congo and say, “I’m like you.” You are not. You’re the other [laughs]. But sometimes you are like everyone else, because you’re a human being, and can just sit and laugh about the same things.
Honestly, I like adventure. I like to come to places I’ve never been, to be confronted by situations I’ve never been confronted with; I like new challenges. It’s like being a kid. That’s the privilege of our profession: you’re a kid, going into the forest, where there’s potential danger and you’re kind of excited about it, and you find some skill in yourself that you never knew you had. Like you suddenly fight off a wild dog, which you never thought you would be able to do. But I wasn’t going to Africa to save Africa, being a 27th-generation Jesus idiot.
PW: No. Well, it’s a very personal motivation. It’s about meeting people, I guess. And finding the commonality and the human bond, despite the class difference and everything else. It’s about shared experience and how people live.
HS: This project, from the beginning to the end, was looking for trouble. To psychoanalyze myself, I was basically going to the places I hate most. Places where it’s only men, only in uniforms, nothing that we refer to as culture. There’s mad religion, religious madness—it’s just a world of madness. And inside the repressive regimes, inside military dictatorships, the most precious, most guarded and most crazy place is always aviation.
Mubarak was a jet pilot. Khadafi was obsessed by his Mirages. The Sudanese Bashir, while we were there, opened an aviation factory. They were really proud of having their own airplane industry. Basically, it’s a bullshit plane, but it flew and it said “Made in Sudan.” So you go into the mouth of the dragon, being in this aviation world, and everyone is obsessed by control—by guns and power and firepower— and you’re in it, with this ridiculous machine. It’s completely insane. [PW laughs.]
PW: How has the post-production been? You’ve done it with a couple of people. Last year you told me it was like pulling weeds or working in a mine—exhausting, but nourishing.
HS: Well, I made kind of a mistake because for the first time in 15 years I spent a whole winter in Europe. I have a tiny place in Paris: one room with a corner kitchen. That’s where I spent the whole winter, basically like in a prison cell, with a computer and a bed. My only way out of the house was to get some groceries or a bite to eat somewhere. But I knew I had to do it like that: either I do it or there’s no film. I ended up being confronted with this Africa footage—seeing these people’s faces again.
PW: Talking about editing, there’s these hard cuts—the kind of Kuleshov, putting two images together, La brute kind of feeling. But there’s irony: dealing with all this dark material, satire—humour as a knife.
HS: Well, humour is a way of surviving mentally. And I hate this Christian-related claim that we have the moral high ground and others don’t: the certitude of being on the good side.
PW: Lots of documentarians as well are always on the good side.
HS: Yes, I just cannot stand it. But I think even the craziness of the situation is enhanced by this clin d’oeil which is there always, despite myself.
PW: There’s also trompe l’oeil, which is a bit what this is too. But this leads to a disjunction. It’s not just about the facts, but about using satire, irony. Both as a way of commenting, enlightening, but also sort of like a self-defence, otherwise you go crazy…knowing, and having no power to do much about it.
HS: Then it really has to be cinema, in the sense that it has to reach out for its full potential. And the potential is also irony, it’s poetry, it’s—
HS: Humour, sarcasm—all of it.
PW: I’m just wondering, are we all like those characters you were describing last night, in Idi Amin Dada, all captured by our own inactivity or apathy? Is making film our way of stimulating action, of motivating change?
HS: I think complex representations of life—like movies—very much change the world. But I’m also sure of this—you don’t know which way it will change it. It alters the DNA of human collective brains, alters the program that is running. I think also that a lot of very grave problems for human beings result from too little alternative thinking.
PW: This is one for meditation, when you are 70 and living in Kenya, and hoeing the weeds out of your friend’s garden. I’m wondering what you think your legacy will be, as an artist, a film artist, a human artist?
HS: What I’d like it to be? I’d like to be this guy who liked to kick the ass of the dragon. And by doing this, got a whole series of secondary things rolling: people starting to kick into a different way of thinking, making very brutal thinking shifts, making life more accessible through art [laughs]. And I’d like to create a garden that’s going to be productive for a long time, in all its senses. That hosts and feeds and protects—and stimulates friends.
PW: And offers good drugs?
HS: I don’t really do drugs. Honestly, my most serious drug is my tin can, Sputnik. Gives me quite a kick, you know? I love it. I’m in a trip— literally it’s a trip. And Sputnik is so much more than a little airplane. It is beaming me out of danger; it makes me see the world from above; makes me feel completely invincible and light.
Peter Wintonick was the international editor of Point of View.