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Documentary, Festivals and Conferences

We Come as Friends (France-Austria 2014)

The ironic message of welcome to US visitors in South Sudan

The ironic message of welcome to US visitors in South Sudan

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680I went into this screening with some trepidation. All I knew was that it was a documentary set in South Sudan. Would it be harrowing? Would I learn anything new? Could I cope at the end of a very long day? (Festivals can be a test of endurance – it isn’t always the best way to encounter films.) I needn’t have worried. This was the most surprising film I saw at LFF. It made me laugh and it made me cry and it started with Keith Shiri, the festival’s Africa expert, suggesting that the film might be about the “pathology of colonialism in Africa” – one of the topics that interests me most. The added bonus was that the director Hubert Sauper was present for the Q&A. He had several friends/’plants’ in the audience and he was on rip-roaring form. Eventually NFT2 had to throw us out as the building was closing.

The title ‘We Come as Friends’ is the age-old greeting of duplicitous invaders/occupiers/colonisers – whether in Africa or in an episode of Star Trek. It signals that this documentary is about the colonisers – though the science fiction angle is in there too. The linking agent in the narrative is the strange little ‘microlight’ aircraft that Sauper and his colleagues built with its “lawnmower engine” mounted on top of the parasol wing. This peculiar little aircraft is non-threatening and capable of landing virtually anywhere. (It flies slowly and not very high.) In this way Sauper and his crewmate Sandor landed in many unlikely places including a large Chinese oil installation as well as small villages across South Sudan. He also told us that he discovered that the trick was to have an official-looking pilot’s uniform with hat and epaulettes. Dressed like this, he was able to negotiate with military chiefs, politicians etc. – whereas in ordinary clothes he had previously been given the brush-off.

Sauper adopts a seemingly passive role as a documentarist, so that those he films and interviews allow their own arrogance/prejudicial views to come through without prompting. At other times he plants ideas and lets them develop (as in the Chinese oil base where he leads a group of Chinese into a discussion about science fiction films). His focus is always the colonisers and what they bring into South Sudan – and what they take away. Several remarkable scenes emerge. In one instance Sauper lands in a village where the local chief is about to sign away the community’s land rights in a lease lasting many years to an American-owned company for a paltry sum of money. The local man has no real idea of the value of the land or the quasi-legal status of the document. Sauper argues that these kinds of deals are being made all the time and it is very rare to see the actual documents which purport to legalise the theft of local resources. Sudan was the largest country in Africa before it was split in two in 2011 and South Sudan is still a country with rich reserves of exploitable resources and a relatively small population of around 8 million. It’s also a country where ecological damage is threatening wildlife habitats and rainforest resources.

In some ways the most terrifying group of people Sauper encountered were the American Christian evangelists who have arrived to ‘save’ the people with solar-powered talking bibles and clothing to cover the naked children! The European colonisers are still present in Africa as arms dealers and industrial developers but the Chinese and Americans are the most visible in this film and both these groups of neo-colonialists are as dangerous as the earlier European settlers and economic exploiters. This film should make any Western/’Northern’ audience uncomfortable about what we have done in the past in ‘underdeveloping Africa’. In the last couple of weeks ‘Big Pharma’ – the global drugs companies – have finally started to move on anti-viral drugs to fight ebola in West Africa. They wouldn’t move on this until the death toll rose to a high enough level to make the demand for drugs great enough to justify investing in research and production. The political crisis in South Sudan in December 2013 has led to 1.7 million displaced persons many of whom are starving as makeshift camps are ravaged by disease. So as agencies like MSF are trying to save lives and develop healthcare it is shocking to know that governments and major corporations are intent on stealing the resources of the poor. In one of the scenes in the film in a bar, a businessman/local politician is discussing the benefits of American investment while in the background the TV is showing Hilary Clinton making a speech about how American investment must ‘do good’ as well as earn profits. Sauper explained that broadcasts like this are repeated on a regular basis so it was relatively straightforward to have his camera available at the right time.

It’s very important that this film gets seen and talked about. It’s not didactic and its subtle approach worked for me. The film has won festival prizes all over the world and it has opened in cinemas in France and Austria, the two home countries of the production funders. I really hope it gets other releases. I presume that it will appear on some documentary television channels.

After the screening, the tiniest bit of research revealed my ignorance about Sauper and his colleagues. This is the third film made in Central Africa that Sauper has completed. Kisangani Diary (45 mins, 1998) investigates the plight of Rwandan refugees who fled to what was then Zaire. Darwin’s Nightmare (107 mins, 2004) is a film about globalisation and neo-colonialist exploitation of the resources of the Lake Victoria region where planes fly in with food aid and fly out with cash crops – and then return selling arms. If it is anywhere near as good as We Come as Friends I want to see it.

The excellent website for We Come as Friends is where you can begin to discover this remarkable filmmaker. There you will find this trailer and much more:

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