It didn’t take all that much consideration for Hubert Sauper to settle on the title for his latest film, “We Come as Friends,” an allusion to the generations of colonists that have arrived in South Sudan with less than good intentions, pillaging the land’s resources for personal gain whether through slavery or now its oil fields as a result of globalization. Yet those words carried tangible currency for Sauper and his documentary crew, flying into parts of the country that have now been restricted by the various interests vying for claim over the area, whether it’s oil extractors from China, Christian missionaries from the U.S., native warlords or U.N. officials with sympathies to the oil companies.
The result is an unguarded and often infuriating look at South Sudan’s march to independence, putting to rest a civil war that resulted in over 1.5 million casualties over 22 years, but has plunged the the burgeoning nation into perhaps equally treacherous territory as little is done to improve its status as one of the world’s least developed countries. (Shortly after filming wrapped in 2013, South Sudan entered into another civil war.) Envisioning the region as if it were part of another galaxy from his self-made plane called Sputnik, Sauper traverses the area as if he were in search of signs of humanity, often observing insatiable greed and extreme poverty in the same frame. As in his previous Oscar-nominated film “Darwin’s Nightmare,” which explored how Russians and Ukranians polluted the Tanzanian ecosystem to boost their fishing interests, the filmmaker’s approach is to immerse himself into the culture for years and take in as many perspectives as possible in developing a complete experiential portrait.
For Sauper, that meant dressing up as a four-star pilot in order to elude capture in the secure areas he willfully trespassed and embed himself amongst the regional tribes, speaking with foreigners eager to share their vision of a whole new South Sudan as well the tribal elders who say without a hint of irony, “Did you know the moon belongs to the white man?” Considering himself an artist rather than a documentarian – and there’s no argument here – he creates a fantasia suited for a place in such flux, allowing audiences to come to their own conclusions while taking them somewhere well beyond their own experience. While the Austrian-born, French-based filmmaker was in Los Angeles recently, he spoke of the impact of his “tin can” plane on the structure of the film, how much he wanted to remove himself from the film and editing it in Jane Fonda’s old house.
There’s a striking image at the very introduction of the film, looking at ants crawl around in the dirt around a toy airplane slightly resembling your own. How did that become what you wanted to start with?
The essence of this kind of filmmaking is not only to document, but also what you feel as much as you can. Often, this contains more truth than what is the obvious truth. [Sauper looks out over a gate at blank rooftop of the building next to the hotel] Sitting here in this beautiful setting, it’s one thing, then [to see] this just desert [on the rooftop next door] is another thing. If you film this desert through these bars, you see through another thing. Basically, all I do is translate these instances of life into cinema. This could be a scene right now. It shows a lot of about the city.
It’s not the old claim [of] documentary that it is the real truth — this is Africa the way it is —it’s not. But one of these days when I was stuck at one of these military airports in South Sudan, we were actually not allowed to go away from the plane basically at gunpoint. We were under “arrest” without prison.
There were some soldiers somewhere that told you what you do, so we just waited and in one of these hours we end up waiting, I saw this street of ants in front of my airplane. I started filming these ants. I realized that they go both ways and I got closer and I put in the little [toy] airplane. It transcends something in the film that you can never explain — that feeling of anguish — because it’s it’s not a clean shot. It’s wobbly and not [like] NatGeo people would have [with] fantastic focus following one ant. In a way, it’s an image that we already know. Ironically, it came out of one of these idling moments, but it also contains a lot of things. It’s just the unexplainable magic of cinema.
It also signals this holistic approach you have to your subjects. You don’t necessarily follow individual characters, even though you clearly get to know people at every one of your stops. How did that become the best way for you to tell this story?
The character-driven documentary is a very interesting form and in a way, it’s easier to follow a person in his or her development than following something more abstract, like an idea or a feeling or dream. In “”Darwin’s Nightmare,” for example, I did follow some characters, but this film, the starting idea was basically to mimic a bit a cliché of what we describe as the science fiction genre. Science fiction is always the penetration into time and space and encountering strange worlds and the Other. “We Come as Friends” is just traversing this weirdness — metaphoric weirdness, political weirdness, and our own weirdness, our flying clown [plane]. Even now if I think of it, the whole thing was so absurd because we were basically putting ourself in a state of mind that is exceptional.
We were very conscious that we’re in a place where we shouldn’t really be, where nobody wants us to be most times, where we carry on this whole heritage of the white dude in Africa, which in itself is so loaded and full of terrifying memory. Of course, I don’t want to say [exclusively] the white man, because it’s more complicated than that. From the point of the youth in these Sudanese tribes, some of them asked me if I was Chinese. I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t. They really thought I was Chinese because the only people they had seen [of a different color] were Chinese until then.
That’s why this film may be less accessible to people than others, unless [they are introduced to it] by people like you. When people read something, that gives them a base to find a way in to it. You don’t listen to jazz if you don’t train yourself to hear things. You have to go into it and suddenly you hear so much more than other people. This whole movie is a gamble in so many ways, [especially] in its form Now seeing it, so many people go like, “Yeah, wow, we’re in it.”
The plane you built was obviously a practical decision since there was no other way to bypass the gates to the oil fields in the Sudan, but from that vantage point, you also shot film that adds to the extraterrestrial feeling you describe. How much did the idea of having this plane shaped what actually you wanted to do visually or content wise with the film?
The way to [typically] think of history is abstract — what was, how it was and what was the outcome, but sometimes you can see history in a physical way. Looking down at the village, you see these tribal villages that look like beehives. There’s no single structure made out of stone, there’s no single straight line, and there’s no single tree that’s planted in a row like the colonialists did planting alleys. No human being was standing in a line or marching in step. All of this came with the colonialists and the colonizers. It became what we think of as typical Africa, but only 100 years back, no one ever carried a firearm in this area. Nobody knew what a uniform was because people were barefoot and without clothes. People were sexually free and close to nature and were building their houses in an organic way and eating organic food — all the things we try with a lot of effort to not lose, and very few, very privileged people can gain it back and afford it. If you think of it, those beehive houses with palm trees and straw huts look exactly like five-star holiday resort in the Seychelle Islands.
I think unconsciously we know what we’ve lost and what we’ve destroyed and we try to hold on to it a little bit. At least once a year, [many] go back to this place to where we once have been and call it holiday. It’s the mountain of thoughts that occur when you start going into things, which is fantastic but sometimes confusing also. You go, “Shit.” When you sometimes you catch very complicated thought with one image, you’re like, “Got it!”
You seem to have a knack to capture these moments of duality at a greater frequency than most. I’m thinking specifically of a scene where [a bunch of foriegners] are inside celebrating the U.N. referendum victory that grants the nation independence and you follow the Sudanese woman outside with the garbage. Since this happens time and again throughout the film, do you know when those moments are happening while shooting or do you often find these things in the editing room?
I see this woman because I train myself [during] the process of this film to see things that other people don’t see the same way. That’s why I’m making films. The woman with the garbage was everywhere. I didn’t film the party at the U.N. with the idea, “I must find a cleaning woman there,” but she was there and as soon as she shows up, I pan over and I would go like 10 times back and forth and one of these shots would be the right one in the editing. It doesn’t matter which one, because it says the same thing.
One of the most effective shots that I’ve ever made was very similar to [this one] in “Darwin’s Nightmare.” It was the European Union commission saying that, “Everything is great.” Then I saw these street kids in the same shot. I panned over, but it was even more effective because the street kids were already introduced into the film so we knew them. It wasn’t coincidence because they were all kind of hanging out near the hotel of the whites. They were always somehow looming around, so I was looking out for them while this conference was going on and I see this little guy with the crutches and catch him. You’re like, “Fuck. It’s really there.” But on the other hand, what else is new? It’s totally banal too, so it’s strange.
Is it a difficult decision to decide how much you want to include yourself in these films?
It’s difficult because we shot a lot of material about ourselves because we knew things were going to go wrong and we knew it was going to be great [to film] — every time we had a hold-up with guns and people are asking stupid questions, “What the fuck are you doing? Your plane will be grounded and we’re going to arrest you. Give me money.” There’s so many scenes that we shot that are fantastic with us being overwhelmed, but I took almost all of them out of the film because it would have become “Hubert in Africa” or “Hubert’s Mishaps in his Flying Tin Can.” That wasn’t the movie. It was about so much more.
I had to keep a little bit of us in, because I needed to explain the nature of this endeavor. I needed to take you aboard this flying tin can and into this strange world, so you understand that you are in this strange situation, even as a spectator. But I had to drop so many amazing filmed pieces overboard [for the final cut]. For example, we always filmed ourselves in the air and would sing and have crazy joy in these dangerous situations, which in itself is so off — to be these half-crazy flying clowns [flying] over a civil war. It was our escape mentally to survive the next 48 hours of waiting for soldiers.
We’d take these aerial shots and [shots of] ourselves flying and ourselves preparing the plane and made a little montage out of it. At night, there was a small projector, so we screened it on the tail of the airplane and whole villages would gather with the moon rising. It was insanely beautiful and it made us feel good because we connected to the people and kids were screaming of joy. But again, [even though we filmed this as well] I took it out of the film because it would’ve made us look like the good filmmakers and it would’ve put you as a spectator in a comfort zone, the kind of narrative every NGO and every religious group would do to make their own propaganda. I wanted to keep myself as the narrator, but as kind of a strange figure, so that you’re really in the doubt.
Since you do go to great lengths to stay above commenting on what’s unfolding in front of the camera, how did you go about the music? It’s used sparingly, but the jazz singer Malia sings in a mournful tone.
Jazz has all these connotations in [America], but it doesn’t have it so much in other places in the world. When you hear jazz, it’s just jazz. You don’t think of the legacy of slavery [like] you do in America. I’m conscious of that and I just felt that this is an element that the film needs to take off. You need to liberate your inner journey sometimes in the film in order to be able to take in more. You can’t take in too much of the same. So I didn’t want to use music which fit. If I would put tribal music in, I’d freak out at that point. I see people put prerecorded tribal drums on [a film], downloaded from YouTube, and I lose it, so I wanted to put in an odd element and because it is an odd element, it gives energy to the film. Usually, I don’t like music as an illustration. It’s underlining what you see anyway. It’s like narration. If you have a narration that says, “The police are coming,” while you see the police coming in the image, I think, “What the fuck? You think I’m stupid or what? I can see they’re coming, so you don’t tell me.”
I couldn’t help but noticed in the credits that Nick Broomfield was listed as part of the U.S. crew. How much of a team do you have working around the world while you’re in the Sudan filming this?
A lot of people, but Nick is the father of Barney [Broomfield], who was my co-pilot. He’s an extremely fine thinker and shooter and we were in this plane together. He’s like my younger brother from another mamma in Africa. We were in a state of alarm as we were in this world, which is supposed to be hostile, but also in a state of grace. Everyday we were going like, “Holy shit. What is this?” [because] we would fly to places where we would never, never ever get to in life [otherwise]. That was like our LSD. We were literally and figuratively high in the plane. When you don’t know what’s going on, it’s an amazing feeling — not knowing and not controlling.
One of the co-pilots, by the way, was an American, Andy Bichlbaum, one of the Yes Men. He was with me for a couple of weeks. We were obviously in the mood of being clowns. I filmed Andy [acting as] a U.N. official with pilot’s uniform, which was hilarious. I didn’t use it, because he was basically outdone by the real guys, who said, “Nobody owns all of this. We just borrow the land for our lifetimes and give it back. It’s completely win-win.” It was the quintessence and most sublime sublimation of a Yes Man.
Barney’s mom, Joan Churchill, was [at the screening] yesterday, and Nick opened his house in Santa Monica for us to go and edit. It was freezing in Europe, so I came here for a couple of months to edit and he’s just one of these good spirits who helped us. We edited a good part of it in Nick’s back house, which used to be Jane Fonda’s home. She built herself a backhouse to be in a more private place in her own garden, so in Jane Fonda’s very private four walls, we edited the film. We invited her to a screening tonight, but I’m not sure if she’ll be there.
Is it interesting to take this around the world and see the response?
It’s fantastic – just another episode of one big adventure. When you’re passive about the world and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on, I feel I’m on safe ground when I’m part of an audience with 300 people who are following my thoughts and I can follow their questions and we are together. After two hours, hundreds of people suddenly talking to each other, which is in itself an amazing thing, carries a lot of hope. But the stereotypical narrative of films that depict [global] problems and also suggest solutions is invalid for me. It’s anti-productive because it comforts people into feeling good having seen something that is critical, but they are not leaving the cinema critical. They are just leaving the cinema in comfort. It’s all nonsense.
“We Come as Friends” is now open in Los Angeles at the Royal Theater. A full list of screenings and dates can be found at the bottom of this page.