A New Documentary Dives Into the ‘Cyclone of Bullshit’ in South Sudan
August 18, 2015
by Aaron Hillis
Adolescent boy from the Baritribe, South Sudan, apparently imitating the tribal tradition of warriors putting ashes on their body. This is the ash produced from burning trash. All stills from ‘We Come as Friends.’ Courtesy of BBC Worldwide North America
Austrian-born, Paris-based filmmaker Hubert Sauper understands that technocratic data is mere noise compared to the stirring power of the moving image. In his deeply unsettling, Oscar-nominated 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare, he masterfully illustrated the devastating effects of a non-native, predatory species of fish (the Nile perch) that devoured everything in a Tanzanian freshwater lake, including the locals’ quality of life. Through an artful blend of cinema vérité, an intimate proximity to his subjects, and a lucid sense of wicked ironies, the film showcased the various socio-ecological threads of global capitalism at its most grotesque.
Neocolonialism itself is the theme of We Come as Friends, the second standalone part in Sauper’s proposed trilogy of real-life African horrors. Alternately stunning, sobering, and utterly surreal, the documentary, which was shot over the course of six years, witnesses the before-and-aftermath of South Sudan’s recent independence. Sauper meets with the exploited (a tribal leader who shamefully signed away hundreds of thousands of acres for peanuts) and the exploiters (a Chinese oil worker admits he doesn’t give a damn about polluting the region before heading home richer) while flying around the country in a tiny, ramshackle airplane he built and piloted himself.
As Sauper says, “I’m basically just another white man with this crazy flying machine, which is in itself the representation of the white man in an ironic, strange, and sometimes dark meaning, because planes are dropping bombs or bringing the white doves of peace.”
A smart, charming man who laughs easy even while discussing grave topics, Sauper spoke to VICE about his provocative new film from the BBC Worldwide North America offices in Manhattan.
VICE: Wearing the hats of both filmmaker and journalist, you were in the middle of South Sudan at precisely the right moment to capture a tumultuous series of events in real time. How did your research and gut tell you where to be?
Hubert Sauper: How did I time it? I knew that the premise of this film was the psychology of colonialism. It was going to be somewhere in the center of Africa, but I didn’t know from the beginning where. I was thinking of East Congo, because it has this amazing colonial legacy with King Leopold of Belgium, and I had made my first African film in Kisangani. But then I saw the division of this country coming up, and I saw the narrative around it. The Berlin Conference in 1885 was basically designed to split Africa into protectorates and colonies, which then became nation-states.
South Sudan had never really been colonized because of physical hardship. The Boers were trying to go into the center of Africa, but they got sick from malaria. It’s very different from other places on the planet, where the colonizers brought the diseases, like the Spaniards brought the smallpox to the Incas and Mayas. In the center of Africa, it was actually the other way around. Colonizers who wanted to get in there got sick; their cows got sick. And now it has been “colonized,” I mean quote-unquote, because I don’t want to say it’s the same. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” says Mark Twain.
We landed and people would laugh at us, and I knew that when somebody laughs at you, you’re already a friend. –Hubert Sauper
Americans like myself are aiding and abetting in a small way every day, whether it be interactions with people in service industries or the products we buy. What do you hope audiences will do or think after taking in the film?
You and I are from one culture and one side of the industrial world, right? We’re drowning in unbelievable amounts of information, and because [of this], we’re lacking intelligent information. Movies are the quintessence of life experience. It’s a form of communication that is so much more effective than statistics. What I’m hoping for is to shake up and fuck with the mainstream thinking. That’s the enigma of life, and we have to be reminded that appearance is not what is behind the veil, and behind the curtain there’s another curtain. It’s a fantastic process. You never come to the ground of the real truth. You try to work yourself a bit deeper into this complexity of things.
It comes to that point that you and I are suddenly talking about something, which we wouldn’t do if it weren’t for, in this case, that film. So this is carrying a lot of hope and confidence, to me, even though people are saying, “In your movies, you’re showing us problems without showing us a way out.” But I’m a filmmaker, not a policymaker. And I’m not a prophet. I don’t want to put myself into the position of showing you all these problems, and toward the end of the film providing all the possible solutions for it. That’s the step forward that audiences should make because they’re inspired by this chaos.
Schoolchildren in Toposaland sing in honor of the US delegation, to thank them for the new electric power plant. “Our dear friends, brothers from the USA, we are yours, you are ours, thank you for the electricity…”
At least you remember that a documentary is still cinema. Too many docs, especially the social-activist variety, simply convey information that washes over us like a Wikipedia page with moving images. Do you have any sort of philosophical approach to finding the balance between chronicling a subject and creating a vivid, artistic work?
Well, I’m not trying to make art. I do what I can, and it happens to be seen as art. But it sounds a bit pretentious in this part of the world.
Then let’s not say art. Let’s just say expression.
Yeah. But the truth is that I went to art school, and I have a university degree in art, and that’s the way it is. It’s not more, not less. Art is a complicated thing to explain, but when I switch on a camera and engage with someone, I don’t do an interview. I try to base into this group’s energy and frequency, and I get so much more than I could ever wish for. An example is this woman who talks about her past of being a refugee running away from Sudan, and she says, “We have this song we sang,” and I said, “What is the song about?” She starts to sing, and there are shivers down my spine. It’s jaw-dropping. As I see her, and as I hear the beauty of her voice and I’m recording, it’s such an intense moment. It is almost automatically an intense moment for the audience.
It took years of detours, days on end, to find this woman. It’s a process, right? You have to be ready, too. The man at the side of the road who’s kind of this genius-idiot, he’s this Dostoevsky figure. I wasn’t looking for him, but he triggered my attention as I was ready to meet him, one day. I walk up to him, we engage in this talk, and there’s so much truth in it. He goes after me and is like, “You’re European, you don’t even know. You’re the guys bringing the guns,” and I’m like, yeah, just give it to me. [ Laughs] I take the blame, you know? I base into his highly intelligent naiveté, and I am, in a way, this idiot myself.
I knew I had to expose myself to the eye of the cyclone of bullshit, basically. –Hubert Sauper
If not an idiot, people at least think you’re crazy for flying around Africa in this rinky-dink airplane. Do you think that helped you approach people, because you either seemed less threatening or gently eccentric?
I knew it in advance. The whole concept of the airplane was to build something ridiculous and practical that would bring us to places we couldn’t come unless we would drop from the sky. It bears this whole chain of metaphors that I wanted to use, but also break. The airplane itself is the symbol of superiority and industrial arrogance. But this little plane called “Sputnik” is also the opposite. We landed and people would laugh at us, and I knew that when somebody laughs at you, you’re already a friend. You immediately have this link, then you can go, “Should we have dinner together?” and they feed you, help you repair a tire, and things happen. It was the concept of the film. The irony is that because we were so vulnerable, we were exposed to this military world in a sometimes hostile way, in Libya and Egypt.
Yes, how did you get out alive? What were some of the physical challenges and dangers that we didn’t see on film?
Ninety-nine-point-nine percent you don’t see, of six years of life. I was taken as a spy, and they were sure I was Mossad or CIA or something, sneaking around with this little airplane. I kept insisting that I come as a friend and have permissions, and they’re like, “Yeah yeah, just sit here and wait for another week and we’re going to sort this out.” They call the Ministry of Defense and the guy who gave me the permissions is on leave, and he doesn’t write back a telefax. So I was in a very bad state sometimes, but still even that was a part of the concept. I knew I had to expose myself to the eye of the cyclone of bullshit, basically.
The European colonial heritage of bullshit is like this nonfunctioning bureaucracy and militarism marching in step. The uniforms, the jet fighters—it’s too much nonsense. I had to dive into it in order to talk about it. It came to a point that I just couldn’t make it any more, and I was really, really stuck. Then the idea imposed itself that you can only live there if you mutate into a uniformed idiot yourself. So I bought pilot shirts and gave myself four stars, because I’m the captain. It’s like the crown or something, but in a completely idiotic way. We were laughing our heads off, it was so ridiculous.
Related: Watch our documentary ‘Saving South Sudan':
While watching, I was reminded of films like The Act of Killing and General Idi Amin Dada, in that you turn the camera on all the players and give them enough rope to hang themselves. It’s so direct, your findings, that it becomes alien and surreal. Did you have specific techniques to disarm people?
Barbet Schroeder, who made General Idi Amin Dada, is a close friend and one of my heroes. He also was witness in the lawsuits that were filed against me after Darwin’s Nightmare. I had some dubious import/export-lobby hitmen who were trying to bring me down, so it’s interesting you bring him up because he’s a start for me.
It is, in part, a technique of infiltration. It’s fooling with authorities, which is a kind of adolescent drive that I love, like to kick the idiot teacher’s ass when you’re ten and you’re the class hero. But also, toward the people in the villages, I try to be as honest as I can. The more you open up, the more you are not that arrogant Westerner who knows everything. With this link that you create, there’s a lot of truthfulness that suddenly emerges in what people say.
Lastly, you’re quite modest about this airplane you’ve built. I can’t imagine there are how-to YouTube videos out there. Do you have any advice for anybody who wants to build an aircraft?
It’s not rocket science. I get a lot of credit for this, but I can tell you it’s a hundred times more difficult making a film than making a flying tin can. It’s like building a tree house. There are hundreds of thousands of tree houses, and we can build them one way or the other. It’s a primitive structure; it has a little Rotax airplane engine, basically the technical features of a plane from the 1920s. So it’s a low-performing airplane, and extremely slow, which is the opposite of what an airplane should be because an airplane is something that beats time and space, right? The Sputnik doesn’t. But the advantage was that we could land on a little strip, piece of road, or on a riverbank, and we could have people take the piss out of us and laugh.
The only advice I have is, do what you need to do. People say, “You take so many risks to make your films.” But the ultimate risk is to work for a bank and find out at 65 that you should’ve done something else with your life. So the only advice is, live your life. [ Laughs]