If you thought colonialism was a thing of the past, then check out Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper’s infuriating documentary “We Come as Friends.” Sauper’s previous film, the Oscar-nominated “Darwin’s Nightmare,” was about economic exploitation in Tanzania. “We Come as Friends,” which could serve as that film’s companion piece, is about the formation of the world’s newest country, South Sudan, which was created after a 2011 referendum that split the predominantly Christian south from the rest of Sudan, which is primarily Muslim.
Sauper began working on this film six years ago, not knowing if South Sudan would become its own country. We first see him arriving in the south in a rickety airplane nicknamed Sputnik. To the skeptical villagers he says, through an interpreter, “We come as friends.” The villagers, of course, remain wary – this is a refrain Africans have heard from Western interlopers for generations. A new chapter here is that, with the widening involvement of Chinese oil interests in Sudan, the exploiters are now also Asian. Sauper lays out the Sudanese situation for us in all its maddening complexity. The infighting and disarray in South Sudan leave it vulnerable to foreign adventurism. African leaders must align themselves with outside interests in order to remain in power. At his official functions, South Sudan’s first president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, wears a big black cowboy hat, a gift from President George W. Bush; the leader of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, cozies up to China. (Bashir, of course, has been accused of instigating genocide.)
The great sorrow hanging over this film is that, despite all the progressive talk bandied about by voices ranging from United Nations emissaries to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not a great deal has changed for the Sudanese in this supposedly post-colonialist era. We hear impoverished villagers wail about how an oil facility operated by the Chinese has poisoned their drinking water and how their sacred ancestral lands have been taken away from them.
Referring to the Sudanese, a young, fresh-faced British bomb-disposal expert says, “There must be a reason why they’re still 200 years behind the rest of the world.” He surmises that “they want it that way.” A Chinese oil technician, driving to work, surveys the fetid terrain en route and declares that “environmental protection” is the “responsibility” of the Sudanese. American Evangelicals, proffering solar-powered Bibles, scoff at the village children running around naked, although at least they recognize that in Genesis Adam and Eve were “naked but not ashamed.” Clinton’s pronouncements that “the Africans will profit” from outside investments seem, in the context of what we are seeing, either deeply disingenuous or deeply cynical.
The scene that haunts me most comes near the end, when an elder is confronted by some fellow villagers about a deal in which he uncomprehendingly signed away full rights to 600,000 hectares of land for $25,000. This is the same man who proudly proclaims he fought other Sudanese for 20 years to keep the land. The ongoing tragedy in Africa is too nefarious, too complicated, for any one film to do it justice, but “We Come as Friends” opens a wide window into this mansion of horrors. Grade: A- (Unrated.)