“When You Have a Message or Issue-Driven Film, It’s Already an Act of Patriarchy”: Hubert Sauper on We Come as Friends
Hubert Sauper’s new film We Come As Friends is more non-fiction poetry than traditional documentary. Following his Oscar-nominated Darwin’s Nightmare, We Come As Friends is set in South Sudan as it becomes its own country. A new (or, rather, the same old) colonialism is represented by rapacious outside interests pressing in on Sudan from all sides, desiring the country’s oil and natural resources. Amidst it all, Sauper and his collaborators build their own tiny aircraft, complete with a wind-up music box on the dashboard, and fly it into a nexus of cultural communication gaps, deception, corruption, violence and a rhapsodic absurdity that is simultaneously disorienting and illuminating.
In the course of his time there Sauper encounters, among others, Chinese businessmen, Texas evangelicals, a Sudanese chief and a warlord. To his immense credit, the director never foists answers onto his audience, but rather allows these encounters to speak for themselves. Sauper is a visual storyteller, and the visceral feeling of being caught up in the dark folly of the world is enormously effective.
The opening shot of the film, ants doing whatever ants do as they encounter a tiny model plane, is the first in a stream of swirling metaphors and trancelike sequences. At the end of the film the question is posed, “Did you know that the white man owns the moon?” This idea of ownership – what it means and how it is differently understood, or not understood — is at the heart of the colonialism depicted here, with Chinese, Americans, and Europeans all exploiting the Africans.
Of course the title of the film itself operates in multiple ways. Sauper and I meet in a conference room in a midtown New York corporate building, with the director jet lagged having just arrived from Paris. After a brief exchange about Donald Trump, we discuss many things, including the origins of his film’s title. We Come as Friends opens in theaters today.
Sauper: I feel completely like an alien here, you know?
Filmmaker: Maybe we’re in your movie.
Sauper: And worse even, when you come from France you say hello and you kiss on each cheek. Here it’s like, “No, it’s an offense. It’s sexual harassment.” Okay, sorry — I’m doing the Donald Trump thing.
Filmmaker: No. You’re not. You’d have to go much further to do the Donald Trump thing.
Sauper: Right. He is out there, no? Even in Europe we are following this. He’s in a way good because it’s the quintessence of so much bullshit. He is kind of personifying the demon, in a sense.
Filmmaker: “Personifying the demon” is not unrelated to your film. At Sundance, you told a story during the Q&A about the flying of the plane and this way of entering a documentary world that’s kind of hidden in plain sight by literally crashing into your subject.
Sauper: Yes. The whole airplane thing — it’s so much the key of the project. It’s a red line and the kicking point, the intrusion tool, the Trojan Horse. It’s the joking element, it’s a means of transport, and it also carries all these strange things that are so symbolic. An airplane that is obviously from the industrial world dropping bombs but also saving people, The U.N. is using it as this white dove of peace, but it’s so many things. It’s the machine that beats time and space. And the whole thing about colonialism is that it’s also about basically gaining space and stealing people’s time, right?
Filmmaker: And you built the plane yourself.
Sauper: Yes, but the building of it also had a series of reasons. One of the reasons was that obviously it had to have some technical features like no other plane. It’s very strong for its weight, and it’s also very slow, so it’s not really what a plane should be. A plane is to get somewhere fast. Because it’s slow it’s kind of a joke — it can fly slowly and can glide, you know? [The slowness] is a security measure; you can land on a very short strip. But it’s very backwards technically. Still, it’s an airplane, and it carries all of these things. And I’m a white man with a uniform – which is also part of the theme of the film. We kind of mutated into the uniform. It wasn’t an idea from the beginning; it was just because we got harassed so much in North Africa, mostly by the protocol, by the colonial protocol to be precise, and when you come like this [gestures to his t-shirt, how he is dressed], they’re like, “You’re out, you’re not one of us, you’re under arrest, your plane is not a real plane.” But as soon as you feed into the protocol you are one of them. You’re a military. And they have respect. It is absolutely ridiculous but the filmmaking is spiraling around ideas and bouncing back and coming back into the cyclone of ideas and trying to get into the core of it. You never do get into the core of it. You’re always somehow in the periphery of something — basically the fascination of this world, and of these thoughts and these connections and metaphors that you find. These odd characters and odd settings — you would never get this as a private person, you know? So it’s a fascination about adventure, which again, is a colonial thing. Which every first settler or pioneers had. They wanted to see other places, discover and meet the “other” — and eventually kill the “other”
Filmmaker: There were so many different people from different countries in the film, but with the exception of you and your crew, nobody was there to try and see what they could learn or understand about themselves from being in Africa. They were all there to —
Sauper: To impose.
Filmmaker: To impose.
Sauper: Because that’s the culture, right? That is the culture. The whole texture of the movie, the basic material of the movie, is the translation of this fascination. It’s a bit of a childish thing, like when you are five and you come to a new thing and you’re like, “What’s going on here?”
Filmmaker: But when you’re five you maybe have more willingness to learn something.
Sauper: Yes, but as an artist you have the privilege and maybe the devoir to stay in this state of mind, no?
Filmmaker: Yes, as an artist, yes.
Sauper: I’m very glad that a movie like this can trigger a link to the audience. Sometimes I think it’s just not going to kick in because people don’t have the codes to read it or they don’t have the will, or the thoughts to even go there because it’s so weird. Everything is weird.
Filmmaker: I don’t think it’s weird.
Sauper: No, because you are weird. You are Nick’s [Flynn’s] friend, you are weird. But how many people are able to? From their education or background or freedom of thought.
Filmmaker: There is always this challenge with people wanting a simplistic idea. We Come As Friends and Darwin’s Nightmare as well are successful at being quite complicated but not in a way that is off-putting.
Sauper: When you have an issue or a message-driven film, it’s already an act of patriarchy. It’s an imposition: “I know, and you don’t, and I’m going to tell you. And then you should shift your moral compass and become a bit better and …” Even that is already basic bullshit. What is “a bit better?” If you say that, you are so sure about your whole moral construct, you know?
Filmmaker: One of the other things that you talked about at Sundance that interests me is dealing day-by-day with something that is so globally bleak and quite difficult. How do you keep yourself and your collaborators from despair and an inability to continue?
Sauper: By keeping the status of the King’s Jester and the idiot and the fool. And by acknowledging that the darkness of things, or what we consider dark, is also just a part of the equation. It’s also fascinating, no? Dante’s Inferno is not sad; it’s exciting, right? It’s like the Sudanese politician who doesn’t know the National Anthem, and who has probably, through his order, killed thousands of people. He’s not depressing, he’s just fascinating. It’s depressing when you think of the people who were killed through his order, but it’s super fascinating to see the way he sings.
Filmmaker: Watching him sing is an amazing moment in the film.
Sauper: I guess the answer to your question is that the fascination makes up for the darkness, no? Maybe another answer is when you start to take everything less seriously it’s easier to take.
Filmmaker: Yes. You were mentioning Barney [Broomfield] and your collaboration with him.
Sauper: He’s awesome. With Barney and Nick [Flynn] and Xavier [Liébard], who was my other copilot, Nick was with me in Tanzania [as Field Poet on Darwin’s Nightmare], it was like this flow. We were… flow is the right word, we were just completely going, laughing like crazy at things and being fascinated and being puzzled about things together, but in an exciting way. Barney is 15 years younger than I am, like my little brother, but he’s super smart, and we were just these clowns in this clownish airplane.
Filmmaker: I like that you put a music box on the dashboard of the plane.
Sauper: When we were landing, we always had hostile fire somehow, from military or police or even NGOs. We always had to come up with a story about what we are doing and why we were here and who we were with. And obviously we were with no one except I was with Barney. “Who are you with?” And you have no good answer. People were very suspicious: “Nobody’s behind you?” And sometimes we were like, “Who are we today?” You know, “What do we say now?” A soldier walks up to us with [a gun] and you have to coordinate a story and not say something stupid. But even that was such a game. As long as you survive it, you can kick the beast, basically.
Filmmaker: But you had a close call.
Sauper: Well, Barney was almost shot. He was actually shot at and they just missed him. They destroyed the house where all of our stuff was. Do you want to know that story?
Sauper: We came out of South Sudan, out of this whole crazy trip, and flew to Kenya in order to dismantle the plane and bring it back to Europe. Barney had this contact to this aristocratic white Kenyan family, one of the really big nobles, so they were going to take us in. They have houses and airstrips everywhere, private sanctuaries with wild animals, and they said, “When you land, land from the South and watch out for the giraffes.” So, with the theme of our film, we were back into it, you know? We landed and were hanging out, and they let us keep the plane there, and I went back to Lake Victoria to see a good friend. And as I got back the next morning, the house was in tatters. Everyone was running around this colonial house like crazy. They had been attacked by ten soldiers in uniforms — fake soldiers, fake police — who took whatever they could. They took all our gear and obviously they shot at people in the night and missed everyone in the house. Basically coming out of Sudan, being in a secure place, [and it] turns out not to be secure…. The real police brought two of the “bad guys” in a trunk in the morning and said, “Are these the bad guys?” “Yeah, it’s them.” One of them was already dead, and they were handcuffed to each other. The other one was still alive. So they went off to interrogate the guy who was still alive to find out where is the rest of the gang. He didn’t want to talk so they figured let’s just cut his balls off so that he would talk, and they did cut his balls off and unfortunately he bled to death and didn’t talk at all. I don’t think it’s anything you want to write about in Filmmaker Magazine.
Filmmaker: You’d be surprised what I’d write about in Filmmaker Magazine. But Barney was ok?
Sauper: Barney was fine, but he was not fine mentally, you know? We had quite a lot of these close calls. I don’t talk about it to the press often because then it becomes a “Hubert in Africa” story, and it’s about so much more.
Filmmaker: I’m not trying to make it that, I am more interested in how as a documentarian there is an emotional balancing act one has to do. I have a friend, a journalist who wrote a long form story on China buying Africa.
Sauper: Or “getting it.”
Filmmaker: Yes. Exactly. He was there quite a long time and got very sick. We used to talk about how to hang on to sanity.
Sauper: The crazy thing about China and Africa is that the big influx of China in Africa was through a mistake by the Americans, which was in Sudan. In 1988 when the American Embassies blew up, Washington decided the Sudan was one of the bad countries. They were hiding Bin Laden…. So in order to punish the Sudan they said, “Let’s pull out Chevron, which had been drilling oil.” Chevron had contracts with Islamic governments long before what would be considered as the worst dictator of all times – now Bashir. So they pull out Chevron — [the] famous embargo, basically to say, “You guys are going to dry off, you’re not going to have any money and you’re going to be on your knees…” Only the next morning the Chinese came in and said, “We can help you. We come as friends” There was a legal shift because the Sudan was not allowed to sell oil to anyone anymore [because of] this embargo. But the Chinese [said], “Okay, we can drill for it and sell it, and we give you a share.” So they did and they took over the physical structures, which are the ones you see in my film. They built much more and made pipelines to the Red Sea and have this multi-billion dollar operation going. From that moment on the Chinese went viral. And now the U.S. and the Europeans are trying to elbow their way in and they have like ten percent only of the money and economic exchange. The Chinese in Africa have nine times more. But also I didn’t want to feed into this Western simplistic narrative that they are the bad guys…
Filmmaker: You just said your title, which I quite like: We Come As Friends.
Sauper: We come as friends — obviously, all of us, right? “We,” the Chinese. “We,” the filmmakers. By the way, this origin of “we come as friends” in this country was 1898 when the American Spanish war started. The Spanish wanted to stay in Cuba, the Cubans wanted to be free and the Americans sent this big battleship, the USS Maine, and said, “We come as friends, we want to help you Cubans to free yourselves.” And then the ship blew up, and nobody knew how but it was reason enough to go to war. This was the official end of the Spanish empire. In this case, this was the very moment when the U.S. realized that the recipe works, you know? To come and help and then take over.
Filmmaker: Once you have footage, how do you approach your editing?
Sauper: I edit and shoot overlapping. It’s such a complicated process to kind of cook down stuff you shot and figure out what you shot and what is in the footage. Usually there’s a lot more in the footage than you think, a lot of underlying things. [As] a filmmaker, almost despite yourself, when you’re in a certain frequency you shoot things that have, within the scenes, all these layers, ironically. The layers you kind of prepared to explore are sometimes more than you thought they would be. Then some footage is so bad that I don’t even want to show it to my friends, and I hope nobody finds it. Not concentrated and out of focus and just nonsense. Nothing footage, you know? A friend of mine is trying to make a film about nothing.
Filmmaker: How’s that going?
Sauper: Well, it’s nothing so far. Is that really bad or is that good? I don’t know. He has nothing.
Filmmaker: Is there a last thing you want to tell me?
Sauper: The last thing I can tell you is that the reward for me to bear this series of nonsense is to encounter non-nonsense. Sometimes you can feel very alone. What I’m saying is when you make a book or a film that leads to these kinds of [non-nonsense] encounters, then you’re okay, right? That’s what you’re working for, right? And you don’t feel as alone any more. And that’s good enough. It’s worth it.