Some messages, even if they’re familiar, need to be repeated. Filmmaker Hubert Sauper’s scalding documentary We Come as Friends reminds us yet again of the ongoing monstrous behavior visited upon Africa by the rest of the developed world, which harvests the continent’s resources at the expense of its people. Other recent nonfiction films, including Sauper’s Oscar-nominated Darwin’s Nightmare, may have covered similar terrain, but the anger and sophistication he wields throughout We Come as Friends make this a standout and a worthy addition to the current, ever-clamoring chorus of protesting voices.
2004’s Darwin’s Nightmare focused on Tanzania, using the country’s export of fish to Europe as a jumping-off point to discuss the poverty and inequality elsewhere in the African nation. We Come as Friends doesn’t have quite as fascinating a central hook, but that scarcely matters: Filmed over the course of several years, this new film takes place mostly in South Sudan as it’s about to declare its independence from Sudan in 2011. Less a tight narrative than an atmospheric snapshot of different communities within the country, We Come as Friends introduces us to Chinese oil riggers, Christian evangelists from Texas, UN officials and ordinary Sudanese citizens who cannot escape the influence of these disparate outsiders. Sauper, his cameramen and editors never linger too long on any one location, preferring to shape the material around a central thesis: South Sudan may be independent, but it’s sure not free.
As in Darwin’s Nightmare, Sauper proves to be a superb fly on the wall, insinuating himself with his subjects so they reveal their true natures without ever realizing it. (Of course, it’s entirely possible that they simply don’t care how callous they sound.) A British worker blithely comments that the Sudanese are 200 years behind the rest of the planet in their technological development, judging the locals harshly without any self-awareness that Europeans like him have aided this imbalance. Christian missionaries cheerfully insist on bringing their faith to the Sudanese, more concerned about pushing religion on the people than in teaching them to read and write. (One evangelical smugly dismisses the locals’ annoyance that he put a fence around his property, thereby cutting off grazing area for their cattle. “They got over it,” he says.) Everywhere We Come as Friends wanders, tension, poverty and exploitation can be observed, the crassness of the white opportunists a sickening refrain.
To be sure, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking journalistic filmmaking. Whether in Darwin’s Nightmare, Göran Olsson’s Concerning Violence or Roger Ross Williams’s God Loves Uganda, viewers have witnessed how colonialism still exists across Africa, a simmering animosity just waiting to boil over. But the time spent compiling the footage that’s gone into We Come as Friends proves invaluable, allowing Sauper an ability to crystallize his rage and pessimism. Sometimes, Sauper’s juxtaposition of images may seem like cheap shots, but collectively they speak to a growing anxiety he feels regarding the West’s self-centered interests in the region. Early on, Sauper describes non-Africans as an invading alien force, and it’s hard not to see We Come as Friends as a portrait of a de facto occupation. Even those individuals who actually seem concerned about the Sudanese people—George Clooney and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—are depicted as just more foreigners interfering in the locals’ business, telegenic celebrities badly out of touch with the prevailing reality.
Sauper’s technique has slight drawbacks. By not lingering on anyone too long, We Come as Friends can feel a touch too episodic and repetitious, the director sometimes sacrificing character detail in pursuit of his overriding thesis. (At the documentary’s weakest, it can simplify the Sudanese people as badly as the Westerners do.) And yet, this is an overwhelming, despairing film about the same old social ills.
Orienting us at the start of We Come as Friends, Sauper explains that part of the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan concerns oil—and that China supports Sudan, while the U.S. backs South Sudan. (While he was still president, George W. Bush was so impressed with South Sudanese leader Salva Kiir Mayardit that he gave him a cowboy hat—a gift the African president is always seen wearing like a badge of honor.) As the documentary makes clear, the relentless search for fresh resources to plunder—whether it be energy reserves or new souls to convert to a particular religion—brings about predictable turf wars and inequality. We Come as Friends is a travelogue through hell, one that we’ve come to know far too well wherever it is on the globe.
Director: Hubert Sauper
Writer: Hubert Sauper
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.