The award-winning ‘We Come as Friends” opens on Friday Aug. 28 at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley
The award-winning ‘We Come as Friends” opens on Friday Aug. 28 at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley

Hubert Sauper, apparently, is a man of many talents. First, he spent two years building his own ultra-light aircraft, which he then flew from France to Libya (hardly a pillar of stability, even prior to the overthrow of the Gaddafi government). Then he winged his way towards an even more dangerous destination – the nascent Republic of South Sudan.

And only then did he get around to shooting We Come as Friends, a documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Aug. 28. Though his aircraft hasn’t been granted any special recognition by the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences, his film has since gone on to win prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, and Sundance.

With We Come as Friends, the Austrian-born Sauper has crafted a critique of colonialism and economic imperialism that miraculously manages to avoid sounding like a lecture. There are no learned talking heads in his film, no Noam Chomsky, and only one participant (an employee of the United Nations) who’s identified by name. Instead, Sauper’s film relies primarily on the words of the Sudanese people, with a modicum of news footage sprinkled throughout for illustrative purposes.

When he arrived, heavily Christian South Sudan was — with assistance from the UN — working its way towards independence from the heavily Muslim north and its despotic ruler (and indicted war criminal) Omar al-Bashir. A referendum approved by 99% of South Sudanese voters sealed the deal; some of those voters are seen in Sauper’s film extolling the consequent end of their “slavery” at the hands of the “Arabs”.

Exploitation at the hands of other outsiders, however, was already underway. Chinese energy companies, European arms manufacturers, and American evangelicals all flocked to the new country to make money and harvest souls. Farmland and precious groundwater were polluted so that pockets could be lined with the proceeds from the 300,000 barrels of black gold extracted each day from the Sudanese soil.

On the spiritual front, Christians from Oklahoma and Texas brought the Good News that Jesus would no longer tolerate little children running around unclothed (as one evangelist notes, “the cultural things we are trying to change…are against the Bible”). They also brought previously unknown or under-appreciated economic concepts to the region: the locals, one missionary observes, “don’t understand property ownership like you and I do”.

Sauper’s message is clear, but he does his best to let the locals (and their purported new friends) speak for themselves. Despite prompting by Sudanese participants, he’s reluctant to offer opinions or respond to even the most mundane of questions – including whether or not he’s from France.

This is, in sum, a film about the effects of modernization and late-stage capitalism on the South Sudanese rather than a film about the exotic adventures of a bourgeois Austro-French filmmaker. For those appreciative of Sauper’s 2004 production Darwin’s Nightmare, you’ll get similar mileage herein: We Come as Friends does for Sudanese farmers what his earlier film did for Tanzanian fishermen.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...