The Art of Documentary: Hubert Sauper


‘We Come as Friends’

[Editor’s note: We Come as Friends premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award for Cinematic Bravery. It won the Peace Film Prize at the Berlinale. The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis called the documentary by Darwin’s Nightmare creator Hubert Sauper a “surreal, moving, infuriating and persuasive argument that in South Sudan, there’s nothing post about colonialism.” Truly, there is no nonfiction film quite like it, and even the word “nonfiction” doesn’t do its personal, futuristic-essayistic ambitions justice. Given the emphasis on “newness” these days, it is already disappointingly off-the-radar until its eventual theatrical debut, but it will be worth the wait. It’s a timeless piece that needs to be seen in full-screen format to be fully appreciated. In the meantime Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow spoke with filmmaker Hubert Sauper during the San Francisco International Film Festival last year.]

Jonathan Marlow: There are a number of U.S. distributors looking at We Come as Friends, I wager.

Hubert Sauper: Two or three are interested. We’re figuring out which is best. I don’t follow those details too much.

Marlow: How did you feel about the distribution for Darwin’s Nightmare?

Sauper: It was a small thing because it was an unknown filmmaker and an unknown film. It was Wendy Lidell. She did a great job. She got it to the Oscars and it got nominated and it was one of the worst things that ever happened to me! [Laughs.]

Marlow: Getting nominated? When I read about Darwin’s Nightmare, it is often referred to as ‘highly controversial.’ It is not controversial at all. That is somewhat fabricated.

Sauper: Highly controversial for arms traders and fish importers.

Marlow: …invisible.

Sauper: They attacked my character. They went after people in Tanzania. People were arrested and threatened. Death threats.

Marlow: Have you spent much time back in Tanzania after that?

Sauper: I can’t go back. The President of Tanzania is involved in this campaign. Very powerful people. He spoke on television for half-an-hour against this evil white guy who wants to dirty our good image of Tanzania. A lot of interesting twists. Some of it involved post‑colonial trauma. This white guy is trying to teach us about oppression….

Marlow: Had they ever seen the film?

Sauper: No.

Marlow: It was their idea of the film… It struck me, in most of the comments that were made, that the commenters had not seen the film.

Sauper: ‘The Director had evil intentions because he was never showing himself. He was always hiding behind the camera!’ Seriously. ‘He was trying to film at night secretly…’ I never film secretly.


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: It isn’t surveillance footage.

Sauper: ‘He is trying to show that all women in Tanzania are prostitutes and that we all do nothing all day but eat fish bones… it is not true; it is a lie.’ It is a lie for the President, anyway. Fish bones.

Marlow: He did not have a similar reaction to Kasanagi Diary at all?

Sauper: No, because it was not widely distributed. Have you seen it?

Marlow: Yes.

Sauper: The exposure was nothing compared to Darwin’s Nightmare. But had it been widely distributed, it would have been terrible.

Marlow: With We Come as Friends, you’re expecting a similar reception…

Sauper: I’m expecting…

Marlow: ‘You court controversy,’ is that what you’re saying? Not by choice… but there are powerful interests…

Sauper: It’s very simple. There are two choices. If you’re not, they go after you as soon as you’re in their radius of reach… Like the king’s jester. It is fine when he talks in court but it is not fine if he goes out to the people and has a microphone.

Marlow: No one can accuse you of hiding behind the camera in this film. It is very different than your earlier documentaries in the sense that you are, at least in the first part of the film, a presence in front of the camera.

Sauper: I still shot ninety-five percent of the film.

Marlow: The entirety of the second half is more reminiscent to Darwin’s Nightmare. But other than the conscious choice you mentioned at the Q&A, even though it occupies a short sequence of the film, you were stuck in Libya for an entire month. I don’t think there is necessarily a way for you to create and edit the film that didn’t include that apparatus, Sputnik. You are using this light aircraft to travel to these places and the capabilities that harnesses.

Sauper: It had to be in the film. Any process in editing (or in writing, as you know) is all about proportions. Or cooking. How much rosemary do you put in your soup? It can be disgusting if it’s a little bit too much. These were very hard choices because the material of Hubert and Barney stuck in Africa is amazing. It is a real anguishing knee-slapper, you know. It’s both. We were in so much trouble at the time.


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: Are you planning to do something with that material?

Sauper: I want to. I have a lot of stuff… To catch this whole concept of space travel and this crazy machine, my first destination in Africa was a ghost town, ‘La guerre des Ètoiles.’ Star Wars. The set of Star Wars, in the Sahara.

Marlow: Tatooine.

Sauper: It’s still there. It’s a ghost town. It’s part eaten by sand dunes. One human being lives in that town.

Marlow: Really? [Laughs.]

Sauper: His name is Amar. He lives inside of the spaceship. One of these, which is in reality a big piece of metal that Lucas had shipped into kind of simulator… He lives in this tube. In the spaceship.

Marlow: You knew he was there in advance?

Sauper: I had been flying there with Air France three or four times and made friends. I said, ‘I’m going to come with my plane. I’m going to land here.’ He looks like this cliché image of a Taliban in his cave. Of course he claims to having been best friends with George Lucas. He said he was an extra in the shooting.

Marlow: It is possible, I guess. Not best friends, exactly.

Sauper: He comments on this whole post‑colonial end-time situation. He said, ‘Well, those were the days. We had chicken and meat and Coca‑Cola. As much as we could eat.’ His eyes were shining. ‘So much Coca‑Cola! Like water. We could use it.’


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: The fellow that is in the film that you see on top of the plane that’s crashed? He’s pretty articulate about the situation.

Sauper: He is a similar character.

Marlow: You didn’t know he was there initially? Did you follow him around a little bit when you landed?

Sauper: This guy, I found. I took one of these local motorbike taxis and I saw this crazy guy. He said ‘Stop, stop.’ I jumped off and took the cameras, running. As the camera runs, I meet him and I say, ‘What planet are you from? Your real birth planet?’ [Laughter.]

Marlow: ‘The Mercury planet? The Mars planet?’ It was your first encounter with him?

Sauper: I had never seen him before. Sometimes, it is probably the purest form of connection. I meet you and I begin shooting.

Marlow: You were by yourself on the plane at that point? You were alone?

Sauper: Alone? I always had my camera. Me and my bag, going from somewhere to somewhere else. In Juba, the capital, these wrecks of airplanes are littered all over the country. Colonization, de facto. They sent their missionaries, too. They come to Khartoum and they tell the naked people that they have to dress up. That they have to march in step, they have to read books, they have to sit quietly in church. Or in a mosque. It is the same thing as the Texans.

Marlow: They bring the Quran. The Texans, they bring the Bible…

Sauper: The same. It’s from the point of view of…

Marlow: In We Come as Friends, the people that you meet are either opportunists or they intend to be well‑meaning. Regardless of intentions, they all have a fairly negative effect on the community. Whether to exploit or whether to do good, they all seem pretty oblivious to the culture.

Sauper: From their own point of view, it’s like they all do good. Investors say, ‘We build bridges. They don’t have bridges, they don’t have roads. If you don’t have roads, what if your child is sick? You cannot bring your child to the hospital.’ Of course, everyone has their own…


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: Their own take.

Sauper: Exactly.

Marlow: Like the fellow who is bringing power. The little power plant that they build? It seems out of context. It doesn’t seem very substantial. It is a generator. How much does this company make in order to bring this power to the community? You see no real indication that anyone wants this.

Sauper: Nobody gets it. You know what it’s for? It is financed by USAID. This was one of the many things that I didn’t put in the film because I didn’t want to overload it. USAID, millions of dollars, makes this power grid in this little town called Kapoeta and it is used for five streetlights in the center of town, which is a marketplace. The idea is to fight crime because, when it is dark, criminals wouldn’t rob people. More importantly, Kapoeta has seventy-give percent of all the gold in all South Sudan. Underground. If you want to get gold, you need a lot of electricity. So it is for gold exploration.

Marlow: They have mining operations that run twenty-four hours?

Sauper: Mining operations can only kick in when there is electricity. It is financed by good‑meaning Americans who spend money on poor Africans. This is the story.

Marlow: As a child with a Catholic background, you (like many people in the U.S. as well) would donate clothes to needy Africans, somewhat oblivious to the idea that they may not want them.

Sauper: Right. It never occurred to us.

Marlow: In your earlier work, as well, you see this cultural leftover. You see these American brands on clothing. It is somewhat disturbing because you see this kind of footprint of seemingly well‑meaning cultures from the rest of the world contributing something that is not very necessary. There are better ways to go about it.

Sauper: It is OK for us because we are used to it. Africans carry Russian coats and t‑shirts with ‘UCLA’ on it or something. Our perceptions [and preconceived notions] are what take people off-track. If there were an African that spoke perfect Chinese, they’d say, ‘Wow, his Chinese is perfect.’ Ninety-nine percent speak perfect English but no one even thinks about it. Now, suddenly, we are confronted with someone else who does the same thing.


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: At the screening, someone in the audience asked, ‘Do the people in the film recognize the impact that they’re having?’ In other words, do you actively seek out assholes? You correctly said, ‘When you film people and you do it well,’ as you do, ‘their character comes out. You get to know them and they speak their mind. You get to see what they are.’ People who intend to make a difference are quite rare. The Oakland Institute is definitely a rare example…

Sauper: They’re amazing.

Marlow: …shining a spotlight on areas where corruption occurs.

Sauper: The few things she said were so sharp and so on the head. ‘Nail on the head,’ you say.

Marlow: You hadn’t met her until you came here?

Sauper: No. We had been corresponding and I was thriving on her grassroots research. Through their research, I found a contact. I would have never found this guy. I could have, eventually, but it would’ve taken another year of work to figure out these kind of things.

Marlow: The three problems that we talked about was this idea that we like to think of colonialism as being this distant thing that happened a while ago and that we’re beyond it. Same with slavery. Yet we institutionalize aspects of this and we accept them as we’re going to salsa down to Tanzania where we’re doing these things to help them out in whatever situation.

Sauper: Do you know how King Leopold of Belgium went to the Congo?

Marlow: Yes, historically.

Sauper: How did he finance that? He financed it by courting the religious groups. He courted the humanist groups in Dublin and he organized this huge humanitarian mission headed by Morgan Stanley. Stanley, who had crossed Africa before, had become a well-known explorer so the king of Belgium hired him and made Stanley go on this goodwill humanitarian mission to the Congo. Exactly like the UN does today. The same words.


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: They manipulated…

Sauper: Yes. They used the same words. Even when it is not evil intentions, it is engraved in our DNA. We do not even realize anymore what we’re doing. Stanley sailed up the Congo River for the Belgian king and made all the village chiefs on the shore of the Congo sign contracts to sign off their land. Then he had this big box full of contracts and then the Belgian army a year later came back and said, ‘You sold off your land, get out of it.’ The priests and all these surrounding enemies…

Marlow: It is complicated in the U.S. because the country is founded on the same principles. The country would not be what it is without exploiting natural resources, forcing the native peoples off their land…

Sauper: Land-grabbing.

Marlow: …and, for an extensive part of its history, the country relied on free labor. We want to forget about that. We like to pretend that never happened.

Sauper: It is good to not forget it. It’s good to not forget it in order not to do the same thing over and over. That is the main point. Now it is too late to give New York back to a little group of local chiefs.

Marlow: It is hard to sit back and let these two warlords fight for supremacy in order that they can sign the contract and become wealthy and their people suffer.

Sauper: The thing is… we do not sit back. We send guns.

Marlow: Not unlike what we are doing now in Syria.

Sauper: Yeah. Big time. Since December last year, it was very hard for the U.S. government to decide who is the good and the bad side because they were both freaks. They said, ‘Let’s sit with this government.’ Washington decided he’s the bad guy. If he had been the good guy, they would have said he’s a liberation fighter. The president of south Sudan is killing his own people like with Qaddafi, which he did. It is a question of how do you interpret it? He’s killing his own people but now. But this time, we say, ‘No, no, no. It’s different than Libya.’ Of course he’s a mass murderer. He is a mass murderer more and more because we are arming him.

Marlow: What was the context in which the president ended up with a cowboy hat?

Sauper: The whole idea of Saddam. As we mentioned, in Texas…

Marlow: Right. You had the missionaries. The former head of the U.N. was also coming to Texas, is that correct?

Sauper: There were thousands of Texans.

Marlow: One of the missionaries refers to it as ‘New Texas.’ It is easy to get angry with these ignorant and oblivious people, caught-up with their own self‑importance. Or the sequence where they’re putting socks and shoes on a little boy who had no need for them. They’re so insistent about it. Or when the girl is wearing a Navy dress when she was supposed to wear a uniform at school.

Sauper: Think of the guy with the socks. From then on, he’s a part of the global system. He’s going to work for the rest of his life to buy more socks.

Marlow: Right. Get that started early.

Sauper: He is a part of the system from that second on. The question about the cowboy hat (to make a long story very short) is that these scrawny Sudan boys, it was kind of rule out of Khartoum. South Sudan was completely neglected. That didn’t bother oil companies. They weren’t like, ‘Okay, let’s deal with the Khartoum government. Let’s get Chevron to start working. Let’s see.’ Chevron started the white inspiration in Sudan. Unfortunately for the southerners, oil was under their feet in the south. On the old border between South and North Sudan, the British made this line to contain the Muslims. ‘We are going to send in missionaries. We are going to take care of it and the Muslims are not going to push to the side.’


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: …and it ends-up with their supposed independence?

Sauper: Right. The border between South and North Sudan. What happened is Chevron started to exploit the oil and sent a lot of money for development and arms to Khartoum. The arms, of course, are used to clear more land for oil. ‘To clear land’ means ‘clearing the land from human beings.’ Human beings are in the way. I’m talking about the historic context now. Looking thirty years back. Chevron was investing more and more, and the Arabs or the Muslim regime in the name of Chevron was chasing out more and more barefoot thinkers and more tribes. Chasing means killing off, shooting some villagers, scaring everybody. This triggers guerilla warfare against North Sudan because of the Chevron influx. In the seventies and eighties and early nineties, the guerilla warfare in the South was supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union against America. The big shift was in ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine and the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa and the beginning of the ‘Axis of Evil’ and all this stuff. The Americans decided to punish the Sudan by pulling out Chevron.

Marlow: How is that punishing them?

Sauper: It’s like a boycott. An embargo. Saying. ‘We’re not going to send you any more money. We’ll pull-out. You guys are going to starve.’ So they did. Chevron pulled out. Chevron did not want to pull out but it was ordered to pull out by Washington. The next morning, the Chinese came. They said, ‘It’s OK, we can do it.’ They sent couple of million dollars as a good morning present to Khartoum and the leaders were very happy. They travel to Shanghai and experience some nice Chinese prostitutes in a five‑star hotel. The party goes on. This event was, so to say, the foot-in-the-door of the Chinese in Africa. That is the first big coup of the Chinese, this post‑communist friendship (because the Chinese had built some railroads in Tanzania earlier). They already had some kind of ambition to get resources from Africa… but very low-key.

Marlow: This was a turning point.

Sauper: Sudan opened the way for the Chinese in Africa. From then on they started expanding into Angola. Now they’re everywhere. It was triggered by Chevron pulling out.

Marlow: The workers that you meet with [in the film] are a legacy of that presence?

Sauper: Exactly. They’re Chinese oil workers. They took ninety percent of the oil of Sudan. That is now in China. Now comes the problem. The Bush Administration goes, ‘Damn Chinese, they’re taking all our oil.’ Our oil! We could bomb Khartoum, chase-out the Chinese physically and reinstall Chevron. It would be like bombing Baghdad. They didn’t do it for some reason. Could have. Could have happened. Actually [Bill] Clinton started to bomb Khartoum. He bombed a weapons factory in Khartoum to avoid Sudan arming against America. It turned out that it was a factory of aspirin or anti‑malaria medication. There was an epidemic of malaria, following that. That is not very thoroughly reported. The Bush Administration decided to play the religious card to contain the arms and to make the South want to become independent because they were marginalized and badly treated by the Muslim regime. What is easier than going to these people and saying, ‘We’re on your side. We’ll bring you Jesus Christ…’

Marlow: They weren’t Christian until that point?

Sauper: No one was Christian. No one is Christian! The tribal religions [still dominate] despite the missionary outposts. The whole elite of South Sudan is ‘elite’ because they were at missionary school. They all pray to Jesus Christ. They say, ‘We all are Christians.’ But it is only the elite. Very few people. Anyone who can read and write in South Sudan is potentially Christian.

Marlow: It’s classism.

Sauper: Yes. And they rule the place. They say, ‘we’re on your side’ and ‘we can help you,’ and bring all this humanitarian aid. It was never an open support of the rebellion against the Arabs. It was always a hidden support. The humanitarian trucks would carry guns into the Juba Mountains.

Marlow: …like the planes in Tanzania, taking the fish away, were bringing guns.

Sauper: The same thing. Or similar. In Tanzania, that is a bit of a different story. The Tanzanian ones (in Darwin’s Nightmare) had become a kind of hub for the simple reason that there was a big airstrip in the middle of nowhere. It is very close to Rwanda and Burundi and Congo. But it is not in Congo so they could fly overnight. You cannot fly into war-zones because of the Geneva Convention. That was the reason… Nobody would pay attention to these planes because they were coming to take fish. That was kind of a camouflage operation. I was in Lokichogio, for example, hanging out and figuring out what was going on. And the development in Lokichogio was really down because there had been peace in South Sudan. All of the NGOs went into South Sudan and now Lokichogio is half of a ghost town. It disappeared because of peace! [Laughs.] But some people are still there (pilots, for instance) and they’ve got time to talk about how those were the days when they all had a lot of money and there was beer and girls everywhere. All of these mercenary adventure people. For instance, there was one plane that was shuttling all the time. It was a Yakovlev plane, a Czech plane that carries seven or eight metric tons, eight times the weight of a car. They were shuttling from Lokichogio, from Kenya (almost every night basically) into the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba Mountains form the border between North and South Sudan. It was one of the core battlefields of the civil war. In the daytime, the airplane was a humanitarian plane, dropping food on the same people. Feeding the same people.


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: They would bring weapons at night and, during the day, they would bring food?

Sauper: If you think of it, bringing food into a war-zone where you cannot go (specifically dropping it from the air in bags)… who gets the food?

Marlow: The fighters.

Sauper: Exactly. The fighters get it. Supposedly to distribute it to their kids and their wives. They share it, of course. But, most of all, they feed themselves to keep fighting. Or worse. If people are starving, a bag of rice is gold. With a bag of rice you can go get a young woman and take her as a wife for a night or you can recruit young people because to fight is to always needed new fighters. They needed twelve year old or thirteen year old boys to recruit. But the father says, ‘I’m not going to give you my boys…’ unless he has to because, if not, everyone is going to starve. So the good meaning U.N. bag of rice is recruiting people. It is the means of raping or having sex. It is the means of having access to places or taking power. This is it. That is what it is. The outcome was that this rebellion with John Garang as a leader became more and more powerful. The rebellion basically brought the Khartoum regime to its knees. They had to sign the peace deal in 2005, the so‑called CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement), that led-up in 2011 to the separation of South Sudan. That was, from the beginning, the plan.

Marlow: It was entirely orchestrated.

Sauper: I don’t want to say it was entirely orchestrated. But a lot of people were working in that direction. Some were not. It was not a conspiracy. It led up to this.

Marlow: It encouraged a direction…

Sauper: Like you work on your career. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes you have setbacks. But, ultimately, you end up being the chief writer for the New York Times or whatever. That’s it. It is not a conspiracy until you’re there. You work your way there. The man who had run the rebellion, John Garang, signed the peace deal in 2005. He was against separation of South Sudan. Against. So he was a problem. He fought off the Arabs but he was trying to be the king of Sudan. United, multiethnic, multicultural and economically independent. But that’s no good. ‘We don’t want a strong independent country. We want to divide and rule.’ So he signed the peace deal in 2005 in Kenya in Lake Naivasha with Colin Powell and the British prime minister. Two-and-a-half weeks later, his helicopter crashed. Nobody knows. I don’t know. Nobody knows who shot him down. It’s just, ‘Oh, he’s dead. Shit.’ Then, the next morning… and who comes into power but one of Garang’s assistants… This is the guy with the cowboy hat, by the way. He is one of the groups of brothers. It’s one group. And they’re stealing $4 billion out of public funds. Where is the $4 billion? They’re now in Toronto, investing in hotels. Garang is dead. Salva Kiir, the second‑man‑in‑command, is our guy. Six years later, he runs for South Sudan with the need to be independent, ‘We need to get rid of the Arabs… they’re evil… they’re terrible… look at what they did in Darfur…’ which is true. The conflict in Darfur is one of many very similar conflicts in this area. It’s just one. Not the deadliest. Why didn’t we talk about it for six years?

Marlow: We talk a lot about the ethnic cleansing in, say, Rwanda because it happened in the periphery. It is neighbor against neighbor. But how is it greatly different than the geopolitical manipulation that’s happening behind the scenes? Yes it is different, it’s literally different, but the results are still the same. People are dying. They’re just dying…

Sauper: But there is a reason why people die in Rwanda.

Marlow: It is connected.

Sauper: It is connected. It makes sense. The whole thing makes sense. But nobody consciously wants to stand by and watch people die. We want to advance some agenda and then… Oops, oh shit. 100,000 dead. ‘Shit.’ [sarcastically] ‘We didn’t plan that.’ We had to go through this because our man had the access to power. On the way, unfortunately, he killed many people. We shouldn’t talk about it. We should talk about the people who got killed that are our kind of people.

Marlow: But are the missionaries really safe there?

Sauper: Well… no. I just talked to that guy, who’s in the movie. I talked to him a week ago. He’s now in Ireland. He pulled out. I have to finish this one thought… In the U.S., why was there so much talk about Darfur? Why did Angelina Jolie go to Darfur? She went because she wants to be a good person and wanted to do something. [George] Clooney, too. Why was it so media-tized? Because the regime in Khartoum had to become the dastardly evil machine. Then you can split-off the south and say, ‘The south could never live with these evil crooks.’ It’s ultimately because of the oil itself. That’s it.


‘We Come as Friends’

Marlow: These people are being lied to. You’re shining a light on it.

Sauper: I am simplifying things in a way. The mainstream information is extremely off. This guy from Newsweek, going to Khartoum… what does he know? What does he learn? Who does he talk to? He’s a part of this cloud of bullshit information.

Marlow: You have a record. Drop the needle in the middle of the song and take it off and say, ‘Well, I know how this whole album goes.’ That is what is happening when these journalists get flown in (or these celebrities get flown in). They see what people want them to see. They report on that. Then they go home.

Sauper: That is a good metaphor.

Marlow: You have your plane. You have your co‑pilot. You have your pilot’s uniforms. You don’t even talk about it. Now we’re pilots. Now we’re official.

Sauper: That saved our asses.

Marlow: That gives you power. Power that you create for yourself.

Sauper: It took me a month in Libya and a month in Egypt to come to that idea. No joke. It is the only way of survival for the region. There is one in the opening over Lake Nasser. The opening sequence, you see the plane over the Mediterranean. I was totally crazy to fly over the sea. Then there is a tiny piece of Lake Nasser. Then there’s this one piece of the commander of an air base in Tobourg…

Marlow: The sequence where the fellow is watching footage on the laptop, where you cut from the actual footage to the laptop… Where is that? What are the circumstances?

Sauper: The crash was a minor crash.

Marlow: It did not look too damaging.

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