BY STEVE ERICKSON | Wim Wenders told me earlier this year that he insists on framing poor people attractively; this granted them a measure of dignity, he argued.
Austrian-French director Hubert Sauper’s documentary feature “We Come As Friends,” tests this hypothesis. Sauper obviously has a great deal of directorial skill that he uses it to make the ugliness of many of the landscapes he films more vivid. For instance, he shoots out of a car window as a Chinese man drives by a Sudanese village that looks more like a landfill. Sauper’s images run the risk of going to the other extreme from aestheticizing poverty: confirming Western received wisdom about Africa’s misery.
Yet he also films people who know they’re getting screwed and aren’t afraid to talk about it. Many of Sauper’s subjects talk frankly about the way Americans, Europeans, and (recently) Chinese colonialists and neocolonialists have stolen Sudan’s resources and left the country poorer. They don’t seem self-conscious talking to a camera held by a white European. The last line of the film expresses anger about white people’s claim to the moon, of all things.
Sauper draws on science fiction as a distancing device. Riding in a homemade plane, he films the African landscape from afar. Some of his images recall Werner Herzog’s “Lessons of Darkness,” which depicted the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Here, there’s only ordinary environmental devastation. The sci-fi references, enhanced by Sauper’s voice-over, also evoke Chris Marker. But some of Sauper’s subjects are conscious of them as well. He films a room full of Chinese workers watching “Star Trek” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” discussing how they would approach space exploration. They claim they would avoid the mistakes of colonialism on Earth, and only mine uninhabited planets, oblivious to what they’re doing to Sudan.
A family of white, Christian missionaries from Texas are infinitely more clueless. They call South Sudan “the new Texas.” They do try to educate the local children, but literacy takes a back seat to Christian indoctrination. First and foremost on their agenda is getting the kids, who seem happy to roam around nude (as in the opening scenes of “We Come As Friends”), to put clothes on. It may be healthier to wear clothes, as the missionaries claim, but their stated goal is to change the parts of Sudanese culture that conflict with the Bible. The next step is requiring children to wear school uniforms. Well-intentioned as they are, they’re the shock troops for the oil companies,
“We Come As Friends” has a DIY quality that keeps Sauper from coming across as another sort of missionary. Some of the Sudanese with whom he speaks can’t believe he actually flew all the way from France in his plane. A U.N. official autographs it. The plane serves as a good metaphor for the film, which comes off as a bricolage. Despite the artfulness of Sauper’s direction, one senses that the sheer nastiness of the conditions under which he sometimes worked threatened to defeat him. The most disturbing images in “We Come As Friends” were shot by an anonymous soldier, not by him: gruesome scenes of post-independence combat between Sudanese and South Sudanese troops. Sauper makes a point — granted, not exactly a subtle one — by cutting to tourists relaxing by a hotel pool.
Colonialism kept sub-Saharan Africa from establishing itself in cinema; the first feature film made there wasn’t done until the '60s. Even now, the relatively wide distribution and arthouse success of Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” came as a surprise to many observers. Nigeria now has one of the world’s largest film industries, but Nollywood films have bypassed the festival/arthouse circuit and don’t seem to interest anyone in the West outside the Nigerian diaspora. Ideally, Africans should be able to speak for themselves in their own films about their anger towards colonialists. However, it seems like a fluke when a film like “Timbuktu” gets distributed in the U.S. At least Sauper knows when to shut up and refrain from being the kind of white man his subjects hate, instead giving a platform to them.