We Come As Friends is an astonishing documentary of South Sudan on the eve of independence, assembled almost single-handedly by director and chief cinematographer Hubert Sauper. The close of this film can only be greated with silence; it documents a great tragedy. But Sauper places the initiative firmly with us; the call of conscience in every viewer will be quick to follow.
Director: Hubert Sauper
Screenplay: Hubert Sauper. (Documentary)
Runtime: 110 minutes.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Plot: Hubert Sauper captures South Sudan at an essential moment; on the eve of its vote for independence, and the consequences of that decision. An amazingly thorough documentary, it illustrates the complex puzzle that is Sudan through interviews with locals, missionaries, Chinese workers, American and UN aid officials, and a host of others who compete or unite to form the complex and conflicting web of interests that is quickly transforming South Sudan into a humanitarian disaster.
Festival Goers? See it.
Review: We Come As Friends is an astonishing documentary of South Sudan on the eve of independence, assembled almost single-handedly by director and chief cinematographer Hubert Sauper. Sure, as a director Sauper has a passion for his own clunky, embarrassing narration that grossly over simplifies at the outset – and may put a few audience members off – but once we are past that, the footage he brings together is indescribably tragic and unflinching. Sauper demonstrates that he is as obsessive and dismissive of personal risk as a latter-day Werner Herzog; actively entering warzones, flying under the most dangerous of conditions to get interviews with isolated victims, and stopping seemingly every person he meets to add another perspective to his comprehensive documentation of South Sudanese issues. In doing so, he presents an excellent introduction to the nightmare that rests at the heart of Africa – from food security issues, to poverty, to warlords, to ongoing civil war, to UN intransigence, to corruption, to resource exploitation by foreign companies on a grand scale, to minute and omnipresent suffering. Everything is here; and when he gets going, Sauper lays out the raw material on the table, forcing audiences to confront the forces of disaster that we are all somehow connected to. After seeing this film, one cannot remain in ignorance of the fundamental failure of the international community and us as individuals to demand that something be done. Sauper makes it clear; something must be done.
His interviews with the local Sudanese people are likely to stick in people’s minds, with one village elder remarking that after dividing up Africa, the whiteman ‘went high into space and took the moon. Did you know that the whiteman owns the moon?’ The impact of these arbitrary divisions are felt most in the rural countryside of Sudan, where local warlords with differing tribal affiliations compete for control of territories and loyalties. Sauper catches a heart-rending funeral for a local boy, who one mourner explains went to three different forms of military training – first for this warlord, then another, then another. This is all obviously in an effort to protect his family; as their homes are claimed under the protection of one chief then another. It isn’t enough; the boy is shot as an act of revenge and a warning as yet another warlord vies for territory. The picture is one of feudal lords gone haywire with the ‘small-folk,’ as George R.R. Martin might call them, caught up in the maw of a bloody machine. As the film later documents, ethnic and tribal cleansing is not far to follow; and a landmark vote for independence does not stop the feuding for resources and wealth across yet another arbitrarily drawn boarder.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the documentary comes in Sauper’s journey to a local oil extraction and refinery operation run exclusively by a Chinese state organisation. The Chinese workers talk freely with Sauper in their self contained, secure compound – a world away from the squalor and plastic trash wasteland that he documents elsewhere. Key locals are starting to learn Chinese and work low-level jobs within the facility; while the Government is happy to lease the land and exclusive resource rights for insulting figures – a sign of corruption, but also of hopelessness in that the operations at least provide a small source of employment for locals. A new Cold War between US and Chinese interests immediately becomes apparent, and one local Sudanese worker takes the company line in remarking that the ‘USA talks too much of peace and things like this. We have no need. The USA needs to cut [ties to] Sudan. We do not like [the] USA here.’ The Chinese workers themselves drink Pepsi from plastic bottles, watch old episodes of Star Trek, and enjoy Star Wars films while taking a break. 'You break a balance, exploit, you destroy that' one worker remarks of USA involvement in Sudan, while another observes that competition with the US means the need for arms and resources, and China is acquiring the best and most powerful in the world. It is a sobering message and a clash of ideologies, being played out to devastating consequence in Sudan.
The film is then quick to move to a UN mission, stuffed with US nationals, and interviews with employees over their interests. Most notable is David Grissley, the UN head of mission in Sudan. He hollowly echoes the company line too, but with much less passion and enthusiasm as he gazes over a rough model of the UN compound, and one is left with the feeling of a defeated man going through the motions. The US ambassador is sighted too, flying out to nowhere to open a local power plant to much ceremony; disrupted by an angry warrior in traditional dress who parades around in defiance, but is largely ignored by the ambassador as he continues on as if this is a regular occurrence. As the footage coalesces, including confronting footage of combat itself, one cannot help but appreciate the tangled web of conflict that the country is caught in. Sauper is deft at outlining the differences between the leaders of Sudan (one of whom unfailingly wears the cowboy hat George W. Bush gave him, at every public appearance including the declaration of independence), as well as the religious divide between Christian and Muslims. Just like in seemingly every vulnerable African nation, Texan missionaries are present in droves to prey on the locals like vultures – the sense of mission shining from their eyes, and their leader repeatedly citing occasions when God spoke directly to him. A four-year-old missionary’s son skypes back home to Texas, and asks if the family has purchased the gun he was promised yet. ‘A Christian nation – New Texas’ one missionary describes the colony as. 'Like the American Indians, they don’t understand property ownership the way you or I do' another remarks. A tough concept when you have nothing; obviously alien to these American do-gooders (although familiar enough to the American underclasses). A strange war is fought with the local school children over wearing a uniform to class, with the teacher remarking ‘without a school uniform you are not a person.’
And no one is spared. A British engineer and former soldier continues excellent work going from site to site removing landmines. But his opinions are not far from the surface either, stating baldly ‘there must be a reason why they are still 200 years behind the rest of the world. ... Are they capable?... Maybe they don’t want to [develop].’ George Clooney turns up for a publicity tour, as a UN monitor of the independence vote, and the cameras swarm around him. Meanwhile, the film captures the dispossessed living atop a burial ground, next to a large-scale strip mining operation, as there is nowhere else to go. The water is, predictably, poisoned but they must drink it anyway. A discussion with local elders, and some inquiries by Sauper, lead to the discovery that the government has signed a contract with a US company to sell 600,000 hectares of land to them – including the village in which Sauper is filming. The price was US$25,000. 'This contract will be destroyed by the people,' the elder remarks ominously.
The close of this film can only be greeted with silence; it documents a great tragedy. But Sauper places the initiative firmly with us; the call of conscience in every viewer will be quick to follow. ‘South Sudan is a country that needs help and there is no shame in making a profit at the same time' one businessman remarks, certainly with the best of intentions nonetheless. ‘They have very elegant ways to control our land’ another South Sudanese citizen remarks. Perhaps it is time to smash the order that allows this to continue, as we too are complicit in our indifferent consent.
Rating: Four and a half stars.