We Come as Friends
Directed by Hubert Sauper
As war-ravaged South Sudan claims independence from North Sudan and its brutal President, Omar al-Bashir, a tiny, homemade prop plane wings in from France. It is piloted by eagle-eyed documentarian Hubert Sauper, who is mining for stories in a land trapped in the past but careening toward an apocalyptic future.
See more films
★★★★ review by Peter H on Letterboxd
March Around the World 2018: South Sudan
From the opening voiceover that encourages you to consider Africa as another planet to the arial shots of the landscape at dizzying, even nauseating angles, We Come as Friends is a film meant to disorient you. We often jump to a new scene without understanding what we're looking at. We are aliens on this planet, slowly gathering interviews and other information to understand what we see. Distanced from colonial mentality in this way (I doubt it can ever be fully removed), the images sneak past our defenses to reveal something deeply uncomfortable, even horrifying. South Sudanese toddlers sobbing as they're forced into socks and sandals, which Texan missionaries insist is for their health. UN Peacekeepers getting plastered and threatening to beat people up. The disembodied voice of a journalist reveals that 10% of the land in South Sudan, the world's youngest country, already belongs to foreign investors.
Director Hubert Sauper was clearly influenced by the travelogues to Chris Marker, and We Come as Friends benefits enormously for it. The sense that the narrator is meandering, the thematic jumps between scenes, the rhetorical evocation of science fiction. I loved every second of this, even as it turned my stomach. South Sudan feels doomed before it even began, and I don't know what to do.
★★★★ review by matt lynch on Letterboxd
★★★★ review by Keith Watson on Letterboxd
How does an outsider make a film about about Africa without adopting, intentionally or unintentionally, a colonialist point of view?
In We Come as Friends, director Hubert Sauper (“Darwin’s Nightmare”) answers this question: “You can’t.” Without context-providing titles or expert talking heads, and with only intermittent poetic narration, Sauper presents Africa as another planet and the foreign superpowers, particularly China and the United States, as interstellar conquerors. We see, for example, Chinese oilmen discussing their dream of a land with vast resources and no people, as scenes from “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” play. In a quotation that bookends the film, “Did you know that the moon belongs to the white man?,” Sauper brilliantly interrogates the premise that underlies Western society: that one people can draw an invisible line and claim a land for itself.
Composed almost entirely of contextless encounters with villagers, government officials, UN representatives, Chinese oilmen, American missionaries, and many more, We Come as Friends forces us to connect the dots ourselves, while at the same time presenting us with scenes of such Herzogian strangeness that our lack of understanding is never a barrier to our fascination. These scenes range from the ridiculous, such as a group of Texan missionaries delivering solar-powered bibles to the locals, to the sublime, a woman beautifully singing a protest song that forced her flee the country several years before.
Taken together these encounters offer a vast mosaic portrait of the Sudan as a land of plunder. The U.S. and China are exploiting the Sudanese people, propping up friendly politicians who offer up 99-year exclusive-rights leases and religious bromides as solutions to poverty and hunger. (“I make an airport, and your people can clean it,” Sauper tells a happily nodding government official.) “Development” is a kind of shibboleth that unlocks the door so that foreign superpowers can remove oil at bargain-basement rates and sell high-powered weapons to a land that has been ravaged by constant civil war for decades. It’s enough to make you sick. If it weren’t for Sauper’s quizzical, quasi-surreal image-making, watching We Come as Friends would be an exercise in vomit control.
Like Herzog, Sauper embraces the idea of filmmaker as adventurer, but Sauper more directly reckons with the political implications of such an embrace. Sauper links the adventurer to the colonialist, and in many ways adopts the colonialist viewpoint, even the viewpoint of Western civilization itself. He thereby reveals the extent to which colonialism is still alive and well in the Sudan and, in the process, forces us to reckon with the weirdness of our whole civilization. The power of Sauper’s film is that it renders such basic features of Westernism as Christianity, railroads, oil, gold, property, even clothing as fundamentally strange and mysterious.
Sauper designed and built a small aircraft called Sputnik, which he flew from France into and around the Sudan, logging over 10,000 kilometers. Sauper’s methods in making this film, in many ways, parallel the neo-colonialism of the Chinese and Americans, who swoop into a foreign land to extract its resources and leave. Sauper, however, extracts encounters, moments, understanding. Even the title, clearly an ironic reference to foreign promises which mask their extractive ambitions is linked to Sauper himself, when he lands his plane in a small village for the night. When the locals are understandably spooked at the process of a weird man in a plane forcing himself on their land for the night, Sauper promises, “We come as friends.”
Introducing the film at the screening I attended, Sauper described We Come as Friends as “a big question mark.” And, in the sense that Sauper does not even begin to offer “solutions,” it most certainly is. (Though Sauper’s airplane is outfitted with a tiny music box that plays “The Internationale,” which suggests Sauper’s political response to the problems of Africa.) In filming, Sauper appears to be a great collector of encounters — he collects moments the way American dentists collect the heads of exotic animals — but his true genius is in the editing, where he takes on the role of curator, arranging these encounters into a beautiful, haunting vision of a strange land and the even stranger people who wish to plunder it.
★★★★½ review by Michael Casey on Letterboxd
“The British came with Bibles in their right hands, and guns in their left hands.”
Hubert Sauper came to Southern Sudan in a homemade plane — a tin can with fabric wings and a motorcycle engine — with cameras so small, so unobtrusive that the locals could only treat him with a friendly demeanor.
Southern Sudan is full of color and life, but that is not what makes it valuable to other nations. They want the oil, the land and the minerals.
Sauper was on hand to see the declaration of democracy of Southern Sudan, effectively ending the slavery of Arab colonization. George Clooney was there also. Though the Arab rule has ended, that doesn’t make Southern Sudan up for grabs. In fact, it might be worse off, because here come the Christian missionaries to help establish “New Texas” as one woman says, only half-joking.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and Sauper swallows it whole: Ministers and Missionaries, Warlords and Warriors, peacekeepers and peacemakers, men, women, children, journalist, celebrities and profiteers.
We Come As Friends is a powerful piece of work. So intimate it feels personal, so public is appears global.
★★★★ review by Sam Van de Sande on Letterboxd
Anti-hegemonic documentary that provides a clear picture of the current state of Africa.
The most-used narrative scheme in American documentaries, which has influenced many other national trends in that genre, is to drive the point home by repeating it, often ad nauseam. Hubert Sauper wisely uses a different tactic, showing as much sides to his subject as possible. Many perspectives are shown in a neutral way, the moral evaluation, problem definition and causal interpretation is left to the viewer.
The contextualisation that is used to introduce the subject emphasises this; we, the western audience, are alien to the concrete situation in South-Sudan. Every bit of information we receive through the media is filtered and framed is such a way that we have no clear view on the state of neocolonialism in Africa.
Instead of the standard, Western political-economic discourse (mainly the exploitation of Africa by so-called 'helping' investors), Hubert Sauper also presents the results of religious rifts (the main ones are foreign imports, i.e. Christianity and Islam), the Chinese political-economic views on both Africa and the USA, the views of local civilians and leaders, the ecological effects of the exploitation and, most importantly, the forced adaptation of the English language (and Western culture in general) to be taken serious and be able to communicate with the Western World.
To conclude, Entente Cordiale [We Come as Friends] is a good documentary, as it criticises our limited knowledge of and view on African culture after we wrongly deemed them to be freed from colonial forces.
- See all reviews