Ten years ago, the Swiss filmmaker Huber Sauper dazzled everyone with his sweeping documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare”. That African injustice has not diminished since then, he now demonstrates with “We Come as Friends,” a sweeping story about neocolonial exploitation in all its forms. Once again he travels alone with a camera, observing but also activist, through the African interior.
In this film Sauper visits South Sudan, at the beginning of the shooting period not yet split off from the Islamic North and at that time (in its inseparable form) the largest country in Africa. He flies a self-built airplane through South Sudan to experience the split-off and to record the stories of the inhabitants of the youngest country in the world. A young nation, large and still barely filled – a country full of possibilities, resources and space, in 2014 attracts hungry adventurers from all over the world who think they can win something in the country. Whether it’s oil, land, money or souls, Sauper shows that it all comes down to the same exploitation.
He begins the film with general background on African colonial history, to create context and to show to the ignorant viewer how idiotic random the division of the continent into different countries has been. Queen Victoria drew arbitrary lines across a large map in pencil, and here: borders were born and with them the never-ending series of conflicts and wars.
The film takes you past Chinese companies, European investors, local villages and United Nations quarters and shows that the devastating influence of European rule is far from extinguished, in fact: that colonialism in Africa has never disappeared; it just got new players. Because where European countries in the 21st century are still a bit reluctant to indulge in old-fashioned exploitation, the Chinese and North Americans seem to find themselves there in ‘We Come as Friends’ (just like in the title, there are plenty of metaphors for alien voyages of discovery). Major environmental problems due to the construction of a gigantic oil refinery? That is their own problem. A tall fence around the villa of a bunch of Texas religionists? Then the local goats graze elsewhere.
The examples that Sauper cites are countless, some more poignant than others. The stupid egos of Western (and Chinese) characters from the film throw clichés and prejudices into the camera. The documentary also features local leaders, village housewives, and shows crying children forced to put on clothes and shoes by Texan missionaries.
The only side note is the lack of any form of control by the young country and its inhabitants. Because Sauper has relatively few Sudanese prominent figures, and does not discuss the domestic and regional problems himself, he suggests that everything can only be seen within the post-colonial structures. There is still little faith in Sudan’s own powers, and if we are to believe ‘We Come as Friends’, this young country is currently being deprived of any chance. We can only hope that the future will really bring relief, and not in the form of the power plant recently built by foreign companies, where Sudanese are only welcome as cleaning helpers.