Hubert Sauper discusses making his film We Come as Friends, creative nonfiction cinema, and the geography of colonialism. This is an excerpt from the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1. To read the full interview, purchase a copy of the ebook here.
About a year before the 2010 South Sudanese general election, documentary filmmaker Hubert Sauper boarded a lightweight plane that he’d built in France himself and headed to rural South Sudan to make a movie. He was interested in investigating what traces of colonialism still existed in Africa and what its present-day effects are.
As we watch Sauper swoop in on his plane at the beginning of his new documentary, We Come as Friends, he likens himself to an alien from outer space, visiting a foreign land to try to understand it. He films through the window of his plane, a bird’s eye view that acknowledges no borders, as Sauper notes in his voice-over that artificially imposed borders by European colonialists have spawned war across the continent. The nature of his chosen mode of transportation makes him both like other white people, landing uninvited on foreign land, and different from them, because he comes in open-minded, willing to engage.
He spends the first half of the film talking to local Sudanese people, asking them about their views on colonialism and its lasting effects, and to the foreigners who have settled there. He talks to U.N. employees and to Chinese immigrant workers who have come to dig for oil, the valuable resource that’s divided North and South Sudan and caused violent conflict. It’s quickly apparent that these are two groups that never communicate with each other.
The U.N. worker he speaks to talks about locals in theory, but in the film, we never see him actually engage with these locals, because it’s not part of his everyday routine. Equally, the Chinese immigrants work behind a fence that literally divides them from the landscape. It’s just not in the foreigners’ culture to go engage with the locals nor in the locals’ culture to seek out the foreigners. Sauper noted, “My general feeling is that there’s very little connection. And yet there is a huge connection in terms of impact, because the lives of the tribesmen are literally uprooted and digged up, and [the impacts] are deadly sometimes.”
The lack of communication between the two groups is something Hubert Sauper expertly expresses visually. Foreigners are often shot inside rooms or vehicles, where Sauper emphasizes the walls to who how cut off the foreigners are from the locals. While visiting the U.N. building, Sauper trains his camera on a window, looking out onto the landscape, making us ever aware of the boundary that separates them. He also shoots local Sudanese people by their homes at the side of the road, watching foreigners drive by. Sauper asks the locals to tell their stories, and we see just how greatly impacted they are by what the foreigners are doing — not necessarily for the better. Later, we see American missionaries who have settled in South Sudan. While they do actually spend time with the locals, it’s a one-way exchange: The Americans are only interested in imparting their culture and their wisdom, not in hearing the locals speak or trying to understand their situation.
The effects of colonialism can be seen visually through the geography of the places where the locals gather compared with those the foreigners have built. Sauper described how he was using this stark juxtaposition: “I was trying to film history through geography from space by looking at a village that looks like a bee hive — which is very organic and beautiful, in my aesthetic — versus the U.N. camp where everything is straight and structured and lit up and square. I didn’t say that, but I can put it close enough in the film that as a spectator, you can feel that or even see it and analyze it. A lot of people would just have an uneasy feeling seeing this U.N. camp without necessarily knowing why. But one of the reasons why is that a minute before you saw a tribal village. So the clash of cultures and the clash of times can be seen by air.”
To read the rest of the interview with Hubert Sauper on We Come As Friends, purchase a copy of the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 here.