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In the first section of We Come as Friends, director Hubert Sauper travels in a tiny plane through the most barren stretches of Sudan to interview the country’s denizens. Some viewers might find it difficult to place the film in time—the quality of life for most Sudanese has not changed much in decades, and Sauper intentionally avoids any contemporary political context. Eventually, he covers the referendum in which the South Sudan was born, letting us know that we’re in the very recent past, but the point sticks: This is not a film just about Africa’s current problems. It’s about the problems that were created decades ago and persist today.
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As framed in this elegant, populist political documentary, South Sudan is only the latest frontier in Western efforts to colonize Africa. When the country broke off from Sudan with the support of 98 percent of voters, it was seen as a victory for democracy and peace. But soon, many countries—led by China and the U.S.—elbowed in, making deals with the fractured political infrastructure to gain access to the country’s oil. In other words, it was a victory for capitalism, too, a thesis the film argues with both poetry and clarity. In voiceover, Sauper tells of the “steel lines” that first divided Africa, the train tracks that brought both “guns and the British flag” to the continent. Moments later, that penetrating steel is replaced by another: the smooth, curved lines of an oil refinery.
Sauper makes every attempt to clarify that he is not a colonist mining Africa for his own personal gain, just as countries have occupied it for political and economic power. His angle is subversive, rejecting tired tropes of the geopolitical documentary (see: an endless stream of interviews with political figures and whistleblowers). One of Sauper’s most satisfying cinematic tools is his dismissal of the various figures who hold political power. There’s the pimple-faced British representative of the South Sudanese Business Council, whom Sauper cuts off in mid-sentence, leaving his oppressive doublespeak on the cutting-room floor. It’s a telling difference from the time Sauper gives to the African people who make appearances; he lets his camera linger on their faces for longer than we have come to expect, letting Western audiences soak in the faces and words of people whose experiences have been kept foreign to us.
It turns out We Come as Friends is a film of contrasts: white faces placed alongside faces of color; the silver of the American machinery against the brown and barren land; and the platitudes of Western politicians—Hillary Clinton’s “we don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa,” for instance—contradicting the realities on the ground. Late in the film, Clinton’s words and the talking points of nearly every other politician in the film ring hollow. In the end, Sauper’s artistic victories—his commitment to visual storytelling, his use of montage to upend viewers’ expectations, and his unwavering empathy toward his subjects—win the day.
We Come as Friends opens Aug. 21 at AFI Silver.