For his latest documentary, Hubert Sauper enlisted some friends to help build a plane, which they then flew into Sudan to shoot We Come As Friends over the course of six years: before, during, and after the referendum that caused the country to separate, and gave way to South Sudan’s independence.
Sauper was at the Quebec premiere to present the film, explaining that it’s a documentary about the pathology of colonialism. For those unfamiliar with the conflict, the documentary provides a brief history of Sudan’s opposing leaders and their allies: Sudan’s Muslim president Omar Al-Bashir keeps close ties to China, whereas South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir Mayardit was rewarded by president Bush with a cowboy hat for his Christian beliefs.
At first the viewer is given the impression that the country is torn due to religious differences, but it is quickly revealed that oil is at the root of the conflict, which has brought its share of foreign involvement. A number of situations and conversations reveal a seriously troubling reality.
Comments from foreigners induced many an eye-roll, from Texan missionaries calling South Sudan “New Texas,” to a British soldier claiming that if locals haven’t been able to gain peace in over 200 years, they must not want it badly enough. Foreign investors boast that their investments will allow the South Sudanese to profit some as well – so there is no shame in making a buck off oil extraction. Meanwhile, an old man explains how he was given a contract to sign without understanding what it was – a contract which paid him 25K USD to hand over his land, of which he never saw a penny.
This new colonialism seems more insidious now – though South Sudan was not recently discovered, it is all too familiar and unsettling to see white missionaries and investors arrogantly insert themselves into South Sudan.
I did catch myself being pleased at South Sudan’s independence, if only because I’ve romanticized the idea – until Sauper revealed that the independence was orchestrated by Texas oil companies, who were simply looking for another profitable venture (which most certainly explains the presence of Texan ministers and missionaries shaming children for being naked, forcing them out of any traditional garb they might don and into school uniforms). It’s typical “divide and rule.”
The film is striking in its contrasts, and Sauper has an exceptional eye for jarring details. The UN’s New Year’s Eve festivities see a drunken Scottish lout suggestively shake a bottle of champagne and pop it while a local South Sudanese woman is outdoors, carrying buckets and cleaning. Local villagers explain how their village is becoming a mass grave due to murders, and that water contamination has killed their livestock and plants, as a UN truck drives by, its passengers likely unaffected by these realities.
These situations might seem cliché, but the documentary does a great job of steering clear of sentimental commentary, merely showing a reality that us privileged folk like to pretend is over. Sauper admitted this was the longest he had ever worked on a film. One can only imagine how alert he must have been to capture such fantastic, telling, and eye-opening coincidences on film.
An absolute must see, especially for those who argue the benefits of oil extraction and colonialism.
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