We Come As Friends is about as idiosyncratic a film as I could imagine — visually stunning, lyrically composed, hilariously opinionated — meaning it may not be a smash hit at the box office when it is released in theaters this Friday, but anyone who sees it is in for the closest we’ll ever come to a hybridization of Michael Moore and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. That is never going to happen, so you have to check this out.
Director Hubert Sauper, whose previous film was 2005’s brilliant Darwin’s Nightmare which weaves together cinema vérité filming into a mind-bending narrative about the impact of the Western involvement in Africa, returns to the continent for We Come As Friends. “I feel like I never left,” he told me in a recent phone call.
In a small, custom-made airplane — a little, bitty machine — he flies around South Sudan as the nation is born. Missionaries descend, peacekeepers rumble through, and foreign businesses try to develop — or exploit — depending on your perspective, while the locals respond or suffer the changes.
Sauper is an artist with a sense of justice and a wry sense of humor, so he uses beautiful imagery and man-in-a-hut interviews to make his point: the dynamic between outsiders and Africans is utterly confounding and steeped in decades of abuse.
“I am drawn to places where there is a collision of ways of seeing the world, and Africa is one of these center points. It’s a friction point,” Sauper said.
Sauper, who is Austrian by birth but has lived around the world and most recently hails from France, said, “I happen to be European and the African-European connection is close, more so than Europeans want to admit. There’s a narrative that Africa is a far away place and we Westerners are going to come in and save them and things are going to be peaceful. That whole narrative is a lie.”
The title of his film, he added, is also a lie.
Sauper posed that Westerners serve as both the pyromaniacs and the firemen who come in to save the day. The irony is integral to We Come as Friends, because Sauper recognizes that he himself is a part of that dysfunctional relationship.
“I am part of our world, very much so. Maybe you could say I am an adventurer and colonizers were first adventurers behind whom came the machine of colonization,” he said. “I would go into a village and kids would come up to me and I would bring with me the narrative of the white man who represents salvation. It’s the Jesus complex, whether you want it or not.”
It’s a delightful mystery to me that Darwin’s Nightmare got an Oscar nomination — one outlier instance when the old Academy Award voting rules got things right — but lightning striking twice is unlikely. But it should. I’d put Sauper in a class with Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Joshua Oppenheimer, the latter of whom he considers a fellow traveller. Too bad it takes him a decade to make a movie — we need more from him.