Hubert Sauper's film a dire look at Sudan as it splits in two
We Come As Friends may be the most intellectually challenging documentary on the Oscar shortlist. Hubert Sauper's film is a deeply unsettling exploration of Sudan at a critical time in its history, when the country divided into separate nations.
The director constructed his own plane -- really a tin can with wings -- to navigate the newly-formed South Sudan, where Chinese oil drillers, American businessmen, American Evangelicals and the United Nations were taking an active interest in the affairs of the new country and its impoverished people.
I just kind of lost it. And I said, 'We shouldn't be here.'
Whether you consider the 'interest' displayed by these outside parties a positive development or a case of neocolonial exploitation is a matter of opinion, and perspective.
Take for instance the Christian missionaries. If you're an Evangelical you probably think it's terrific they're in South Sudan [or anywhere else in need of Christianizing, for that matter].
"If you think it's a good thing it's a good thing," Sauper told an audience at a private screening of his film in Malibu.
But many viewers may not find it such a good thing to see American Evangelicals "teaching" local Sudanese to cover their nudity to conform with Biblical mandates. The Evangelicals also distributed solar-powered Bibles.
"We came to the village with the missionaries and we were like, 'Did you just see what I saw?'" Sauper said. ”And we were like, 'Holy shit! Did you see the solar Bible? Fuck, the solar Bible. Let’s film it.'"
More sinister perhaps than the missionary work is the international competition over Sudan's resources, which has triggered brutal warfare between the north and south.
"It’s very simple. The conflict is about these oil fields and it’s about what we’re putting in all of our cars," said Barney Broomfield, who is credited as a "supporting director and supporting cinematographer" on the film.
The Chinese first backed the Islamic north of Sudan, but according to the filmmakers they switched sides after the partition of the country left greater oil reserves in South Sudan than.
"The Chinese say 'We come as friends’ and they support one side or the other and they don’t really care," Sauper said.
We Come As Friends sheds light on how outside corporate interests dispossessed unsophisticated South Sudanese of their lands, by presenting village leaders with contracts to sign that they didn't understand.
"It’s an old legacy of colonialism. Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness which was [about] Stanley — the famous explorer — going to the Congo, outsmarting the Congolese with the contracts for the King of Belgium, right," Sauper said. "It’s the same story."
Of course, the presence of a European filmmaker documenting neocolonialism in South Sudan raises questions of its own -- questions that Sauper asked himself.
"We thought we did the right thing. We were making a movie. We walked into the villages in a way that, seen from the villagers [point of view], was very similar to the missionaries, right," Sauper said. "Even being there is in itself kind of wrong. That’s the whole dilemma of the situation. ‘We come as friends’ is obviously a lie."
We Come As Friends is one of 15 films shortlisted for Oscar consideration, out of 124 qualifiers. Voting on nominations ends at 5pm PT today. The Oscar nominations will be revealed Thursday, January 14.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.