How does an outsider make a film about about Africa without adopting, intentionally or unintentionally, a colonialist point of view?
In We Come as Friends, director Hubert Sauper (“Darwin’s Nightmare”) answers this question: “You can’t.” Without context-providing titles or expert talking heads, and with only intermittent poetic narration, Sauper presents Africa as another planet and the foreign superpowers, particularly China and the United States, as interstellar conquerors. We see, for example, Chinese oilmen discussing their dream of a land with vast resources and no people, as scenes from “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” play. In a quotation that bookends the film, “Did you know that the moon belongs to the white man?,” Sauper brilliantly interrogates the premise that underlies Western society: that one people can draw an invisible line and claim a land for itself.
Composed almost entirely of contextless encounters with villagers, government officials, UN representatives, Chinese oilmen, American missionaries, and many more, We Come as Friends forces us to connect the dots ourselves, while at the same time presenting us with scenes of such Herzogian strangeness that our lack of understanding is never a barrier to our fascination. These scenes range from the ridiculous, such as a group of Texan missionaries delivering solar-powered bibles to the locals, to the sublime, a woman beautifully singing a protest song that forced her flee the country several years before.
Taken together these encounters offer a vast mosaic portrait of the Sudan as a land of plunder. The U.S. and China are exploiting the Sudanese people, propping up friendly politicians who offer up 99-year exclusive-rights leases and religious bromides as solutions to poverty and hunger. (“I make an airport, and your people can clean it,” Sauper tells a happily nodding government official.) “Development” is a kind of shibboleth that unlocks the door so that foreign superpowers can remove oil at bargain-basement rates and sell high-powered weapons to a land that has been ravaged by constant civil war for decades. It’s enough to make you sick. If it weren’t for Sauper’s quizzical, quasi-surreal image-making, watching We Come as Friends would be an exercise in vomit control.
Like Herzog, Sauper embraces the idea of filmmaker as adventurer, but Sauper more directly reckons with the political implications of such an embrace. Sauper links the adventurer to the colonialist, and in many ways adopts the colonialist viewpoint, even the viewpoint of Western civilization itself. He thereby reveals the extent to which colonialism is still alive and well in the Sudan and, in the process, forces us to reckon with the weirdness of our whole civilization. The power of Sauper’s film is that it renders such basic features of Westernism as Christianity, railroads, oil, gold, property, even clothing as fundamentally strange and mysterious.
Sauper designed and built a small aircraft called Sputnik, which he flew from France into and around the Sudan, logging over 10,000 kilometers. Sauper’s methods in making this film, in many ways, parallel the neo-colonialism of the Chinese and Americans, who swoop into a foreign land to extract its resources and leave. Sauper, however, extracts encounters, moments, understanding. Even the title, clearly an ironic reference to foreign promises which mask their extractive ambitions is linked to Sauper himself, when he lands his plane in a small village for the night. When the locals are understandably spooked at the process of a weird man in a plane forcing himself on their land for the night, Sauper promises, “We come as friends.”
Introducing the film at the screening I attended, Sauper described We Come as Friends as “a big question mark.” And, in the sense that Sauper does not even begin to offer “solutions,” it most certainly is. (Though Sauper’s airplane is outfitted with a tiny music box that plays “The Internationale,” which suggests Sauper’s political response to the problems of Africa.) In filming, Sauper appears to be a great collector of encounters — he collects moments the way American dentists collect the heads of exotic animals — but his true genius is in the editing, where he takes on the role of curator, arranging these encounters into a beautiful, haunting vision of a strange land and the even stranger people who wish to plunder it.