Talking to filmmaker Hubert Sauper is a dangerous proposition. Friendly, humble yet extremely charismatic, you feel like you can talk to him all day. You don’t feel the passage of time listening to his riveting stories. His ease and nonchalance with himself let your guard down the first time you see him.
Even with the heavy subject, the newly founded South Sudan and his new film We Come as Friends about the country, our conversation was full of laughs and giddiness. Only later you realize how gifted a communicator Sauper really is both with film and in person.
We Come as Friends opens Friday in New York. Please visit IFC Center website for tickets. *Sauper will be on hand for Q & As for Friday and Saturday screenings.
Twitchfilm: You’ve done films about Rwanda (KISANGANI DIARY), Tanzania (DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE) and now South Sudan. Your interests in Africa goes way back about 20 years. Can you tell me how it all started?
Hubert Sauper: I went to Africa in 1997. Before then, I knew about Africa as much as most Europeans, which is almost nothing, except what everyone knew already – that those poor people needed help, that we should send them clothes and food. And I understood pretty quickly that…what it means to be European and how everything was intertwined, that our continents are extremely connected over thousands of years and that this dialectic about north and south- as in Asia and Americas, is kind of pathological and unbalanced.
And I got interested in Africa not because it’s ‘Africa’. But because it’s kind of collision line, as I say in my films- between forces, cultures, regions in terms of the world’s economic interests. So I’m basically interested in human condition, not necessarily Africa as some kind of an object. But of course I feel somehow connected to it for some reason. I feel, so to speak, at home. It sounds very colonial I know. (laughs embarrassingly)
So yeah, all my films are not about Africa. What I can see is not always obvious but some times I can see things because my odd life (as a filmmaker) that other people can not, because they have other things to do. They have a job within the UN and work on the seize-fire and I don’t know it’s a different kind of…life.
But also I’m more and more interested in the discrepancy between ‘what is’ and ‘what is told’ as history is not ‘what happened’ but ‘what is told what happened’. This all notion of North/South, globalism, slavery, colonialism narrative is, in my point of view, so off track from what I can see and feel as I discover in my, so to speak, adventures you know which in itself is an appendix of colonial-
Do you really feel that way?
Oh yeah. When the early pioneers, explorers and settlers were part of the equation then I am too as an European. As a kid I was fascinated by Star Trek, going to new planets every Saturday night and experience the perils of the other world.
That’s in this film, right? You start it with…
The narrative of advancing space and time then actually of course taking over and possessing and getting rid of bad guys.
So all of these ideas were what I was playing with, gravitated toward and confused about. Maybe I wanted to bring in that confusion into something that seems to be too clear. Maybe it was also about adolescent feelings about the establishment…it’s always refreshing and great thing to be able to be doing this at almost fifty and screwing the lives of warlords and… (I laugh)
Three films in almost twenty years span. Does it take a long time for you to make one project?
Yeah. Well, the gap between Darwin’s Nightmare and this film is extreme because, first of all it’s a way of life and it’s a long haul – the thinking process and money and financing and you have to establish all these access in an inaccessible world.
But this was extreme because I had to get rid of so much very threatening forces against me after Darwin’s Nightmare. I couldn’t really believe what was happening to my life. The film became very successful after it won bunch of awards and got nominated for an Oscar and all that. It was two years after the film was made. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Because I needed that Oscar (nom) to get financing for my films and I got suddenly this exposure so all these wrong people saw my film. These are powerful people- gun runners in Africa and so on. They decide to go after not only me but also people in the film. They were persecuted and imprisoned and had death threats and lawsuits from very dubious groups of people who had a lot of money.
So my life was literally upside down – I had to get people out of the county, my friends had a direct threat against them and their house was destroyed and they were imprisoned.
So I had to do undercover operations for years to understand what happened and counterattack the core group of people who were running this hate campaign.
They were claiming many things in the film were not true. I don’t know if you are interested in this but they claimed those fish bones in the film are not for humans but for dogs.
But it’s there in the film that kids are eating them!
The second claim was purely mentioned by filmmaker but you don’t see the guns. So there was no gun running – you don’t see them so nothing happened.
The third claim was that those street kids were actors. They were actually from good homes but they were dressed up miserably for the camera and acting for me to…
It was just insane. Any intelligent person can see that what they are claiming is bullshit but when the film is running for the Oscar and when it was in the press, so shit hit the fan. This triggered then, the (Tanzanian) government going down to the people to…
So I had to take care of this and it took so much time and energy that We Come as Friends was delayed for years.
But…I don’t now regret it. I went after these people in France. The head of the defamation campaign was found guilty of defamation which is a very heavy crime in France and they shut down the campaign finally. But I had to go all the way to protect all the people who were involved in it.
That’s a crazy story Hubert. But the thing is you went right back to South Sudan to do this film!
Yeah but I mean, when you go through something like that, you get stronger. After that I was clearer about my convictions and my ideas, not that I’m sure I know the truth but I have certain convictions that are stronger than before.
But also after that, suddenly I understood certain dissidents better- when it’s your own skin, own life that’s threatened, it’s very different.
It gave me a realization that I need to make a movie that stands itself against all the scrutiny.
The thing about WE COME AS FRIENDS is its scope: you are charting the whole Sudan conflict in one film. Not that your other films are any less expansive, but with this one, you are really painting the big picture.
There are couple of elements that stood out for me. I found the Christian missionaries part very interesting. It’s obvious that they are doing a lot of damage to the fabric of the Sudanese society. But was there any debate in your mind to weigh pros and cons of what these missionaries are doing there?
Well, if you are living in a village in Sudan and over head there is a bomber plane from Khartoum, from Islamic regime. And bomb your village and kill your daddy or your mommy and a week afterwords, somebody from Texas and they feed you and give you socks, you would be happy too, no?
The fact that a lot of these missionaries are so sure about their belief in their world, I find that quite fascinating and of course scary too. They are basically antiquating (the native culture). They are just a tip of the iceberg. They are from our industrial, Judeo-Christian world. They are just doing their job you know. They are sent by our military industrial complex which needs to go out and dress the naked people. How could they be around guarding our oil field if they are naked? They need socks and they need uniforms you know? This is the mad wheel of… this is what exactly the film is trying to describe.
When I got to South Sudan I have to admit that someone said that this is a country with almost no roads. And I can see that people are naked. We are uncomfortable because they don’t fit in our picture that they are not controllable.
That was an absurd scene to see them putting socks on a baby even though they live on the dirt floor.
I remember growing up getting taught by everyone that we need to send clothes to Africa. It was the most normal thing to do, “of course everyone needs clothes.” There is no second thought. It’s fascinating to think that we don’t give a second thought. The settlers live there and go to fancy parties and stay at the poolside and sip cocktails. They are part of the system.
Speaking of no roads, the film starts with that rickety plane that you are traveling on. How dangerous was that? It seemed very unsafe given the history of air travel in that region. I know many politicians died in a plane or helicopter crash, presumably shot down by their enemies.
The problem with the politicians is that they tend to die after they sign a peace agreement.
So they don’t want to sign any peace agreements. (I laugh)
You laugh but this is no joke. When they say, “OK, let’s put down our gun.” There are others who want to keep fighting. They say, “You are dead. We don’t need you anymore.”
That’s how John Garang died.
Yeah. Supposedly it was an accident but many signs point to the fact that some didn’t want him alive. But nobody knows. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to put my nose into their affairs.
I know Rwandan president died that way, the head of the UN (Dag Hammarskjöld) died in congo and there are many other cases.
But I didn’t sign any peace agreement so… (I laugh)
To give you an answer to your question, that plane seems more dangerous in the film than it actually was. But in many cases we were in very uncomfortable situations with the soldiers and restrictions, really frightening moments and actually the plane got us out of those situations. We said that we were going to do repair on the plane, go back to the plane, and just take off.
In the air, we were flying high enough not to be shot down by any missiles or RPGs. It was like we are in our spaceship, joking and laughing and land somewhere and get arrested and imprisoned for days.
So of course there was a risk of engine failure and fall into a crocodile infested swamps. But I get scared in retrospect only. One thing is for sure: if you are in a civil war, jumping one place to another, there is a bigger chance to get shot in the face with Kalashnikoff than die in a plane crash. You have many checkpoints and there are young guys with guns on drugs…
Do you think it helps you in those situations for a fact you are white european?
You know in the colonial heritage by the way there was this belief system that they can’t kill white people because if you do, then the ghosts or spirits of the white men will haunts you. Until the point in history when French rounded up thousands of Senegalese to fight in WWI against Germans. They had to shoot at Germans who were white. And they got back after the emancipation process and told their people, “OK, we can shoot the white guys.”
No, it’s not. That’s how they got independence after the World War I. They shot the governor and found out there were no white ghosts following them.
But in Sudan, to answer your question…when you feed it into the protocols, when you have a uniform on – then you are potentially part of a bigger group. Then the question they ask is, “who are you with?” I usually answer them that I am with them.
There was another thing that struck me in the film. Whenever you land, people were asking the question if you were Muslim or Christian. The intensity in their eyes scared me.
But I’m neither. I am nothing.
I think they want me to wrap up, even though we just started. I have a friend from Congo. He kept saying that the time has come for the Africans- Everyone had their spotlights: the Europeans, Americans and the Asians had their day. He believes it’s time for Africans to experience the power and wealth in the world. I told him jokingly that it is possible only if we don’t destroy the world before then. Are you hopeful for the Africans or do you see their problems too big to overcome because of the shadows of colonialism still hanging over them?
Very much so. But to be honest, I’m not a pessimistic person. If Africa had its moments- I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. But it is more likely that the world is on fire and they have lands and cows and they could live off the land, then they will be OK. Then that would be their time.
There is a song at the end, “Tomorrow is My Turn” I gave the song script to the singer, Malia, and told her to look at the kids in the film in photos. She put the photos in front of her near the microphone. The song is her singing for the kids.
But even if, lets say Africa becomes superpower, it’s just the group of people who’d get very rich within Africa.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com