Documenting problems or documentary as problem

Dan Edwards: Hubert Sauper, We Come As Friends

We Come As Friends

We Come As Friends

We buy our tickets and watch the films in our comfortable, air conditioned cinemas. We feel concerned, angry and outraged. We express all this and more to each other in fashionable bars after the screenings. Some of us get paid to pontificate on the horror we have witnessed on screen. One of us writes, “It all makes me extremely embarrassed to be a privileged white American eating mini-Snickers in a climate-controlled theatre” (“We Come as Friends,” Slug Magazine, 20 January 2014). Those of us who write lines like these tap out our words on fashionable computers manufactured by Chinese workers just as exploited as the people we write about. We feel bad, but reassured that we’re distressed by our privilege.

Watching Hubert Sauper’s We Come As Friends at this year’s Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne, I couldn’t help wondering if documentaries—or at least a certain type of documentary, and the reactions it elicits—do more to reaffirm structures of global inequality than we’d care to admit. Is there a better way to affect change than simply pointing our cameras at misery?

Sauper’s film is surreal, impressionistic and unrelentingly confronting in its offhand representation of real life awfulness—much like the filmmaker’s previous effort, Darwin’s Nightmare (2004). But where Sauper’s earlier film gradually built a layered picture of a specific situation—the processing industry around Tanzania’s Lake Victoria that supplies much of Europe’s fish products—We Come As Friends depicts a larger and more diffuse state of affairs. Broadly, the unifying thread here is the reiteration in the present of a relationship established centuries ago between Africa and the rest of the world—richer countries come to Africa, they divide and they plunder. The dividing here is starkly in evidence, as the film is shot in Sudan in the lead up to the 2011 referendum that saw the country split into two nations.

We Come As Friends opens with views of the Earth’s surface from space and a voiceover from Sauper describing a journey to the “foreign planet” of Africa. The camera then walks beside one of the “aliens”—a small, naked boy, smiling at the lens. It’s an opening heavy with irony, or is it? We’re at the Human Rights Festival, right? Surely we don’t view Africa this way?

Next we see confused scenes around a tiny, homemade plane belonging to the director. He appears grounded, as unidentified uniformed men mill about. Like much we see over the following two hours, the scene is confused, confusing and ultimately unexplained.

Then we see Sauper flying his plane over Africa and landing in the middle of various situations in places unnamed in South Sudan, where he meets a range of fellow visitors to this alien land. To the locals he shows a signed document affirming that he is “a friend.” He hangs out with Chinese oil workers who extract thousands of barrels a day to send back home. He films the American ambassador opening a power station, “bringing literal and metaphorical light” to the area. He chats with a British bomb disposal expert who wonders why the Africans are still 200 years behind the rest of the world. And, most frightening in their brazen, blind colonialist vigour, a settlement of Texan Christian missionaries he stumbles across breathlessly explain that there are children “literally running around villages naked” a few miles away who need to be educated in God’s ways (rather oddly for the supreme creator of the universe, God is apparently very concerned about what we are wearing). Later we see the missionaries forcing new white socks onto the feet of some of the aforementioned naked African children.

There’s no doubt We Come As Friends succeeds in conveying a sense of all-pervasive exploitation, of ‘us’ conquering, objectifying and stealing from ‘them.’ Sauper’s scattershot approach, however, does little to really illuminate what we see happening here.

In a recent interview Sauper commented, “Every scene you see in the film, I can talk for three hours about what it is, what’s the context” (Film Comment, 12 May 2014). While watching We Come As Friends I often wished he would do just that, home in on a particular instance and help us grasp what is actually going on, instead of just bombarding us with hopelessness dressed up with irony. For without any sense of elucidation beyond a sense of pervasive exploitation, all we are left with is yet another portrait of Africa as an unredeemable basket case of poverty, violence and conflict. More than enough, I suppose, to make middle-class Western viewers feel “embarrassed,” but presumably this is of little comfort to the people on screen.

More disturbingly, I couldn’t help feeling that Sauper himself—and by extension his audience, including myself—were part of the problem. And I don’t mean the film encourages us to reflect on our own imbrication in the economic relationships we see on screen. That might possibly be of some use. Rather, the film places filmmaker and audience firmly on one side, and those onscreen–sufferers and exploiters alike—on the other. We can sit at comfortable arm’s-length, shake our heads about those Westerners creating all these problems and essentially remain uninvolved, aside from, you know, feeling bad about being on the winning side in all this.

The “alien planet” metaphor that kicks off the film establishes the problematic dynamic. While it unsubtly draws attention to the ethnographic lens through which most of us still view the African continent, the rest of the film does little to really upset or even question the neo-colonial relationship that so often underpins this kind of filmmaking, between rich people with money and cameras and people we point cameras at and fix within our own frame of reference.

There are several scenes, for example, in which Sauper talks to local African people who begin to offer informed critiques of Sudan’s situation, steeped not only in historical knowledge but also their owned, lived experience. Like everything else we see, however, these interludes are presented as de-contextualised snatches. We get no real sense of who these people are or the precise circumstances they are discussing, and their voices are swamped by the cacophony of other images and sounds that pass before us. The Texan missionaries, in fact, get much more screen time. We’re really left none the wiser about local reactions to all this, other than the rather obvious point that most Africans are less than happy about their situation. I kept wishing Sauper would give his camera to one of the locals and let them make a film instead.

Frankly, do we really need another film about Africa made by a European–even, or perhaps especially, a well-meaning one? Do we really need another white middle-class filmmaker landing in a foreign land, extracting scenes of misery with his or her lens, and bringing them home for Western consumption? If Hubert Sauper had given his camera to one of the locals he interviewed, I wonder if their film would have made us feel more than “embarrassed” as we munched on our Snickers?

We Come As Friends, director Hubert Sauper, producers Hubert Sauper, Gabriele Kranzelbinder; Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, 7–21 May

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 20

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 June 2015