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The creation and the complexities of the world’s newest country, three-year-old South Sudan, are compellingly explored in We Come as Friends, the latest documentary from master Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper (Darwin’s Nightmare).
The director had no idea whether the country would even come into existence when he started working on what would become this film six years ago, but the footage he has accumulated over that time, superbly edited together, makes it seem almost inevitable from the start even as it becomes increasingly clear that, now that the nation does exist, there are only more, not less, problems to solve.
This Sundance documentary premiere will have its European bow at Berlin and shouldn’t be missing on the slate of festivals and distributors not afraid of challenging but intelligent films about topical global issues.
The beauty of Sauper’s work, as demonstrated in Darwin’s Nightmare and again here, is that it manages to propose and arrange a wealth of apparently heterogeneous material in such a way that multiple (and often parallel-running) causes and effects naturally crystalize. When taken together, the material forms a searing indictment of a diseased system, though, much to Sauper’s credit, his films feel rather loose instead of overly editorialized or preachy, giving audiences the impression they have arrived at the disturbing conclusions by themselves (in no small measure the work of not only Sauper but also his regular co-editor, Denise Vindevogel).
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Sauper arrives on a tiny plane somewhere in what would later become South Sudan and a local chief asks him, via an interpreter, why he wants to spend the night. “We can’t see so we can’t fly at night,” Sauper explains, and the interpreter points at a piece of paper that guarantees that the white stranger and his companions have “come as friends.” The director pairs this with a short recap of the country’s colonial history, when white people also arrived “as friends,” sovereigns on other continents drew African borders to divide the spoils and religious and economic interests pushed Europeans further into the continent.
The rest of the film essentially suggests that nothing much has changed since then, as Sauper follows U.S. evangelical leaders — who insist naked local kids cover themselves but then confess they can’t quite explain the Genesis line about Adam and Eve being “naked but not ashamed” — and Chinese employees of an oil facility that employs a total of four locals (three cleaners and a security guard), is poisoning the local water supply and has displaced people who lived and buried their people on ancestral lands for centuries. As a Chinese employee says without shame, while driving to work through a miles-long garbage heap: “Environmental protection is their responsibility.” The “as long as we can extract the oil and take it home and make lots of money” doesn’t need to be added for it to be heard loud and clear.
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While the world’s new superpowers scramble for access to the continent’s resources — most chillingly seen in an Investors Conference at which Hilary Clinton is seen on a TV, saying she hopes “the Africans will profit” from the investments made in the country, an absurd-sounding statement in the context of Sauper’s documentary — the locals at least get to decide the immediate political future of their country in a 2011 referendum that would finally result in the separation of the predominantly Christian south from the mostly Muslim “Arabs” of the rest of the Sudan.
Though it doesn’t dive very deeply into the minutiae of local political processes, Sauper manages to suggest that South Sudan is an extremely complex society. The country’s exploited by outsiders as much as torn from within by local warring factions, two disruptive forces with at least some kind of causal connection, as it’s easier for foreign powers to step in when there’s a power vacuum and anyone local wanting to hold on to a position of power needs outside support (the South’s first president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, tellingly wears a cowboy hat, a gift of George W. Bush, while Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir, wanted for genocide and war crimes, is a friend of China).
The sobering message of the film is that independence doesn’t really mean anything in Africa if you’ve got resources that richer countries have an interest in and a general population that remains woefully poor and uneducated. One of the film’s numerous gasp-inducing moments sees a man explaining to a village elder, who has signed away the full exploitation rights to 600,000 hectares of land for just $25,000, what it is that he has signed, something he completely ignored. The bitter irony is that this is a South Sudanese man who fought the Sudanese for 21 years “because they wanted to take our land,” only to carelessly sign it away the moment his country achieved independence.
Cinematography, by Sauper and Barney Broomfield, is occasionally rough-and-tumble but almost constantly mesmerizing nonetheless.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Adelante Films, KGP Kranzelbinder Gabriele Production
Writer-Director: Hubert Sauper
Producers: Hubert Sauper, Gabriele Kranzelbinder
Directors of photography: Hubert Sauper, Barney Broomfield
Editors: Hubert Sauper, Cathie Dambel, Denise Vindevogel
Music: Slim Twig
Sales: Le Pacte
No rating, 109 minutes.
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