“We Come as Friends,” director Hubert Sauper’s follow-up to his 2004 documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare,” is a painful record of contemporary colonialism, capturing the realities of life within Sudan (now Sudans, as South Sudan seceded in 2011) via personal portraits of the Sudanese people as well as those present to ostensibly help those that are suffering. Before we get caught up on that red flag of a phrasing, a “painful documentary,” know that Sauper isn’t simply requesting our gasps and tears. Instead, he’s succeeded in introducing us to his subjects in an intimate fashion. We are invited to laugh just as often as mournfully submit to the madness of the exploitation of the Sudanese people. The film is revealing while maintaining a regard for its subjects’ humanity, whether meaning to stir up empathy or contempt.
While Sauper himself only appears in the film in brief glimpses, the circumstances of the documentary’s production are very much on-screen. It’s typical for a documentary filmmaker to carry several credits on a film, but rarely do you see one as unique as “pilot.” In an attempt to avoid the typical obstacles of travel through the regions of the film’s interest, the director and a co-pilot travel from France to Sudan, literally dropping in on his subjects from the sky. The craft itself is laughably constructed in its appearance which ends up being the perfect ice-breaker to begin interviews with people that have no idea who he is. Stepping out of the vehicle, Sauper plays a sort of clown-interviewer to his subjects, disarming any suspicions about the angle of his investigation.
The view from the sky quickly becomes a weighted aspect of the story. The camera swings to uncomfortable angles, forcing the ground below to feel alien. Appropriately so, as Sauper explains in a voice over, Sudan has long been mapped and bifurcated by foreign powers with no real knowledge of the land or its people.
On the ground, the film oscillates between meeting the colonizers and the local Sudanese that the outsider forces claim to be protecting/enriching/saving. Based on the interviews in the film there appears to be little agreement on the realities of where these two sides meet. Everything is shot on a cheapo Handycam with most of the interviews captured in a tight close up. The interviews swell with intimacy as we study a screen full of scars, eyes and sweat. The visuals are primarily informational (though organic, no infographics here), but often veer towards the abstract to create textures of the land and its people. The cinematography is of course taxed by the consumer device the images are captured on, but the exchange for access and mobility against heavier, less portable pro cameras is well calculated.
In what is now North Sudan, Sauper lands near a Chinese oil drilling operation claiming production in excess of over 300,000 barrels of oil a day. Inside the plant are mostly Chinese employees complemented with additional Sudanese workforce. Sauper allows the Chinese oil workers to express both ambivalence towards the negative effects of their operation and as well as a desire for a resource gathering paradigm innocent of this crime. Allowing the would-be antagonists in the film to have complicated, human thoughts on the system they’re facilitating is the most fascinating position that “We Come as Friends” takes throughout the entire film. It continues through every instance of outsiders being introduced.
Before the film falls into a rut of enforcing universal empathy for all humans, good and bad, the results of the foreign oil operation are quickly revealed. Outside the fences of the Chinese plant, the locals are being displaced by the effects of the drilling. The water and the land is poisoned. Livestock are dying. People are dying and suffering immensely. The complicated positions of the native workers inside the plant are nullified in the face of these realities, rephrased as privilege.
Most of the film follows this pattern of establishing outsiders’ mission statements to uplift the region (while they themselves pocket a hefty profit) and revealing the true cost of these programs amongst those forced into submission. The U.N., present to help develop peace in the region, seems more interested in building their own resort and arming whichever factions they most agree with than fostering anything that resembles “peace.” Their own land developments are displacing locals, leading them to set up their towns on top of graveyards.
Elsewhere, a program created to discover and deactivate mines from past wars throughout the region is initially displayed as unquestionably positive. There’s a sickening picture-guide of bombs, missile and mines to help identify the source and variety of the weapons that is passed around like a menu at a dinner table. Even here though, when asked if the locals are going to be able to grow and develop with the help of programs like this, the man running the operation denies the possibility of internal development. He suggests that only outside help will create any positive value within Sudan. Meanwhile he works side-by-side with Sudanese people in his operation.
The longest stretch of time is spent with outsiders is with Texan missionaries. Here, the disconnect between the outsider’s goals and the local’s actual regard for the missionaries is a boundless source of comedy. A man bellows to a group of locals via a translator that his word is also the word of God, and that when they hear him, they hear God. Instead of being caught up in the frenzy of his righteous speech his audience looks on entertained and maybe slightly annoyed. One interview features the religious colonizer classic attitude of “we don’t want to change anything about their culture, just the parts that our religion says are wrong.” It is delivered with such a bright unironic attitude that the tone of the section sharply transitions from humorous to horrifying. It’s followed up by another missionary forcing socks onto a child in a local town, the kid screaming while his mother looks on uncomfortably, unsure how to intervene. The granter of socks attempts to save face in front of the camera, lifting the child up and wiggling around as she cheerfully asks him to dance the dance she loves to see.
The way that we’re presented with all these “well-meaning” outsiders, it initially feels like there is truly nothing positive that an outside force can do to actually help the region. There is never a demonstration of a program or group that isn’t tainted by their own selfish goals in some way. But while we don’t have an exact solution for the struggles of North and South Sudan presented, the film itself provides an answer. Listen to the people themselves.
Despite being constantly told in interviews with the outsiders that locals are incapable of solving, let alone understanding, their own problems, Sauper is discovering otherwise. The Sudanese he speaks to are intelligent, comprehend the politics of their struggles, and identify solutions. The chosen ignorance to this reality is the greatest flaw of the institutions present attempting to have a positive impact. “We Come as Friends” may not be a typical social justice issue film with its lack of a specific call to action, but the amount of discovery and the depth of humanity revealed in the film is surely an inspiring place to start. [A]