The new imperialism
Inventive and insightful documentary on life after war in South Sudan
Hubert Sauper’s We Come as Friends is a documentary that is wildly offbeat and inventive, as well as uncommonly observant. Its subject is the economic, political and cultural turmoil of South Sudan, but there’s very little in it that’s dry, academic or merely “informational.”
There’s a good deal of moral and political urgency running through the film, but it steers clear of propaganda on the one hand and detached, “objective” reportage on the other. As such, it may be best described as an “impressionistic” documentary—it definitely has its own distinctive slant on things—but its chief working principle is a matter of providing the viewer with opportunities to ponder and observe, to make more intimate contact with the realities that Sauper and company have encountered.
From a current-events angle, We Come as Friends gives us some stark glimpses of civil war and political violence in contemporary Africa, and something more than glimpses of the upheavals wrought by the invasion of American and European companies arriving to exploit Sudan’s oil-rich territories. But some of the strongest moments of the film come from more mundane experiences of the modern-day Sudanese – walking down the road, signing documents, going to school (or not), getting water to drink, first-time experiences with modern technology.
Encounters with modernity recur throughout the film, and many of them involve businessmen, missionaries, westernized politicians and other emissaries of capitalist industry. Business interests and missionary work seem more or less interchangeable (literally so in at least one instance), and most of the talk about improved health and living standards seems to be little more than rationalizations for the wholesale uprooting of an entire people from a pre-industrial way of life.
The opening images of We Come as Friends seem to me emblematic of the poetic tendencies that are among its most powerful appeals. The first is a highly stylized (and perhaps digitally animated) view of what look like insects or dark seeds skittering across a barren landscape toward a somewhat flimsy toy airplane. The latter resembles the single-engine home-built aircraft that Sauper flies to remote locations in the film and which he uses for some spectacularly disorienting aerial shots of the African landscape. In the film itself, the plane gives Sauper ways of presenting himself (to us and to the Sudanese) as a modestly mythic traveler, an empathetic magician, a benevolent trickster from an alien place, etc.
The second set of early images follows a young Sudanese boy, naked except for a (presumably traditional) necklace walking along a dirt road toward the setting sun. The boy, like others we’ll see later on, seems innocent, happy, resilient and utterly self-possessed. He looks straight at the camera a couple of times as he walks, curious about it and its operator, but perfectly content to be himself.