The common adage is the world, through technological innovation, is getting smaller. We can virtually ride down the streets of almost every country, interact with a friend hours away using a device that fits in our pockets and through the accessibility of air travel, find ourselves in locales that once needed an expedition to reach. People flock to convention halls to learn about the latest and greatest in world-changing technology and countless TED talks embrace the idea that by connecting the world with technology and cataloging all available information, we will ultimately make it better place. But for all the innovation, hype and hullaballoo surrounding these ideas, do we actually know our world any better?
Technology has opened new doors for filmmakers, especially those looking to document the reality of what is actually happening in the corners of the world largely ignored by a media hungry for sound bites and sensationalism, but it still takes a particularly gifted filmmaker to use this technology to tell stories in new ways that inform as well as inspire audiences. Enter Hubert Sauper’s ugly-as-it-is beautiful, jaw-dropping documentary, We Come as Friends.
The film—part of a six-year quest with hundreds upon hundreds of hours captured before it was finally edited down into the brilliant 110 minutes we see on screen—begins in deceivingly simple fashion. The subject is Sudan and we are given a brief introduction to the issues at stake. The impending (at the time the film was shot) split of the country into Sudan and South Sudan, past European influence, current leadership conflicts within the country and the role of the world’s major powers—specifically the United States and China—in shaping the current state of affairs are all brought to light in matter-of-fact fashion. The film does not dwell on these elements however, for its mission is to show and not tell. And show it does.
Hubert acts as director, guide and pilot on this Conrad-esque journey, literally gliding around Sudan and South Sudan, stopping where he pleases. This DIY approach to travel (the plane was built by the director and can handle both water and land terrain) gives Hubert access to areas and people that governments and companies would have otherwise barred access to long before the first camera was ever switched on. Like Marlow’s odyssey in Heart of Darkness, We Come As Friends is searching for something more than just a person. At stake here is a larger truth about the modern world. The film takes us to small villages, a Chinese oil production facility, United Nations compounds, local radio stations promoting politicians of the world’s newest nation and wandering bands of displaced Sudanese. We stumble across ignorant UN caseworkers, self-appointed good-old-boy Texas missionaries ready to convert nonbelievers, Chinese oil workers that play pool in bulletproof rooms and US government personnel oblivious to the fact they are puppets in a larger game. The film clearly has an agenda—any film edited down from hundreds of hours of footage would need to choose how to present the images—but unlike Michael Moore’s “issue films” that use blunt in-your-face interview techniques to capture reactions and leave the viewer feeling used and manipulated, We Come as Friends captures these sometimes surreal and absurd situations in a much more organic fashion. The unannounced nature of Hubert’s entrances and his willingness to let situations unfold without intervention adds a layer of truth to what we see. And what we see, what the film ultimately presents us with, is a first-hand account of the consequences of modern capitalist-driven colonialism.
Make no mistake–this is a beautiful film to look at. The cinematography–especially when Sauper is airborne–imbues the film with a sense of exploratory wonder and provides it with a distinctly science fiction feel. But by invoking science fiction, We Come as Friends (the title a nod to the Voyager spacecraft recordings currently exiting the solar system) purposely invites the ugly baggage of manifest destiny, colonization and culture clash. Captain Kirk and various other sci-fi icons make an appearance in the background on TVs throughout the film and the juxtaposition of images both grand (UN planes swooping into Sudan) and everyday (the Sudanese people simply going about their daily lives) reminds us that the heroic status of Kirk depends on the storyteller’s point of view. Upon entering one of the Chinese oil production facilities, Sauper asks a pair of unsuspecting pool players: “which planet do you come from?” The question might as well be directed back at the audience. With our eyes transfixed on the screen the realization creeps in: despite the technological wonders at our fingers tips, we still know very little of (or choose to ignore) what goes on around us. If life were discovered on another planet, odds are we would know more about it than we do about our own species. The film—second in a planned trilogy (the first being Sauper’s Oscar-nominated Darwin’s Nightmare)—has very few answers to the questions it asks, but suggests following the trail of this new breed of consumption-driven colonialism is a start.
Hands down, one of the best documentaries of 2014 and an excellent addition to the New Directors/New Films lineup.