Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 02, 2014 4:43 pm 
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Sauper looks at new variations on colonization and exploitation in South Sudan

We Come As Friends, Hubert Sauper's followup to his stunning, controversial, Oscar-nominated 2004 documentary Darwin's Nightmare about Tanzania, is deceptive. It seems casual and disorganized, rambling from Chinese to Americans to UN peacekeepers to Christian missionaries from Texas. It makes Sauper look like a harmless crank, coming from France and traveling around Sudan in a small homemade airplane that is little more than a tin can with an outboard motor. He talks to no high level officials or experts, and consults, among others, some pretty scruffy and uneducated locals. But all this hides how searching this film is. Focusing this time on a wider topic than the pollution of a lake -- the split-up of Sudan and the various colonizers and exploiters of the new South Sudan -- Sauper considers this new upbeat, yet by implication dark, development as a case study in what has been happening to Africa since the white man came there centuries ago. At the end of We Came As Friends one feels exhausted. The plane and Sauper's vivid, artful photo images make his scenes feel other worldly. When we hear Africans say the Americans have colonized the moon we realize this is, for them, and now for us, a nightmare dream, We Come As Friends a message on a postcard from hell -- one it took the filmmaker six years to write. And the plane isn't a wild gesture, except for signaling the lengths the Austrian-born, French-resident Sauper goes to make his films. He built it "to be able to land on small fields in military-controlled areas where" he "never would have been able to go by invitation," he has explained.

There are men in the new Christian South Sudan who fought the Muslim Arabs in the north for thirty years, and now they are "leasing" huge tracts of land for a pittance, or nothing, for 99 years to outside countries who come to exploit their mineral wealth, and they think they are getting a good deal. Exploitation of resources by corporate entities at the expense of the local inhabitants happens in Europe and the United States, but it seems cruder and easier here. A blatant example is the Chinese who've come to take out oil. Their methods are poisoning the water for the locals. That happens in the US, but in South Sudan, the Chinese are total outsiders, indifferent to Africans. Sauper got candid talk from the Chinese. They say environmental protection is the local people's responsibility: they blame the victims.

It is true that this film is a little too long; if unnecessary repetitions were trimmed it could be 15 or 20 minutes shorter. But some situations are so devastating that it's important not only to learn a lot, but to feel nauseated by what one learns. And again, as in Darwin's Nightmare, this is an individual and impressionistic film that makes no claim to be "objective." This is the second in a planned trilogy that began with Darwin’s Nightmare. Each of these is a worthy starting point for controversy, debate, and study. This is a film to be studied, analyzed, rebuffed, explained. And he plans his third film in the trilogy will be an explanation, justification, and followup on Darwin's Nightmare and all the controversy and opposition from the Tasmanian government it gave rise to.

We Come As Friends, 110 mins., which is in English, Chinese, Arabic, Ma’di, and Toposa with English subtitles, debuted at Sundance, where it won the Special Jury Prize in World Documentary. In Feb. 2014 it was at the Berlinale, where it won the Peace Film Award. It was screened for this review as part of the FSLC-MoMA New Directors/New Films series (March 2014). Limited US theatrical release 14 August 2015 (IFC Center NYC). San Francisco Bay Area releases 28 August 2015.

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