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We Come as Friends

August 21, 2015
We Come as Friends

There’s a saying that goes around among Westerners who try to maintain a somewhat global perspective: “Africa is not a country”. It’s a push-back against the common ignorant tendency in the West to treat the continent as if it were some sort of monolithic whole, rather than an extraordinarily large and diverse place.

But after watching Hubert Sauper’s documentary We Come as Friends, I wonder if it might not be better said “Africa is not countries”. The whole idea of nation-states is a colonial legacy artificially forced on people who never thought to carve up the world like that.

As Sauper turns his lens on colonialism and post-colonialism from the border region of South Sudan in the days just before and after its independence, it seems like so many of the problems in the region ultimately stem from an insistence on viewing Africa in the West’s terms rather than its own. As he opens the film, he muses on his approach to Sudan. He suggests we to come to Africa like aliens landing on a foreign planet, implicitly asking the audience to try and set aside our mental filters. Can we allow the scenes to speak for themselves, rather than to impose meaning on them?

He reinforces this stance by refusing to provide context for what he shoots. We know he’s in South Sudan — or what will soon be — and that it’s the summer of 2011. Beyond that, we must learn everything from the images. Naming a village, or giving precise dates for his encounters will only tell us information from a Western perspective. Explaining who someone is beyond what they say would only be a convenience to let us off the hook of really listening and letting them define themselves.

This comes up most strikingly in a scene where a Western ambassador is dedicating a new power plant. As he speaks, one of the native dancers dressed in traditional garb begins to whoop and holler and jump around the square. It’s a striking note of authenticity that comes bursting through the otherwise sedate, stiffly formal proceedings. We may be inclined to call it a protest, but to even use that word implies an endorsement of the legitimacy of such a Westernized ceremony in a tribal region.

On the other hand, there’s a lot we miss without the context. That power station happens to be in a region with billions of dollars of gold underneath it, and the process for extracting gold from ore requires plenty of electricity. It’s impossible to tell from the images just how duplicitous the ambassador was when he spoke of “bringing light to the people of South Sudan”.

And then there’s the problem of unringing a bell. Outsiders may have introduced the idea of “Sudan”, along with both the Christianity and the Islam that are tearing a bloody wound across the country. And whether they’re artificial, Western constructs or not, Sudan and South Sudan are places that exist, and more locals than just warlords and kleptocrats now believe in them. Simply renouncing colonial interventions and going back to the way things were is not an option. Besides, we’ve already seen that Western divestment just opens the door to Chinese interests, who are as willing and eager to smile broadly and declare their win-win friendship as any Westerner ever has been.

Similarly, it’s easy to point and laugh at a compound of inane Texas missionaries preaching the Christian gospel to the Sudanese. It’s ironic how they use the story of the Fall to demand that the local children wear clothes, never noticing that in not being ashamed of their nakedness the kids are closer to an antelapsarian state than the Western missionaries are. And they recreate border problems in miniature when they build a fence, insisting that the people near their compound adapt to their own ideas of “us” and “them” — “mine” and “yours”. But that doesn’t change the fact that many of the South Sudanese do have an honest and sincere Christian faith now, and to say “no, that’s a Colonial imposition” would be every bit as paternalistic and reductive as the missionaries are.

As usual, the big lie of verité-style documentaries is that they present things “as they are”, without imposing any filter or perspective on the content. Every time one of Sauper’s crew points a camera, they divide the world into what’s inside and outside the frame. When Sauper presents a juxtaposition — whether it’s passive, like a UN truck passing through the frame behind someone’s head, or active, like running to catch both the ambassador and the dancer in the same shot — he cannot escape the fact that he chooses the images based on his own sense of meaning. He can try to hew as closely in possible to the spirit of what he felt while he was there, but he can’t help but be informed both by his own past and by all the information he specifically chooses not to tell us.

Still, Sauper seems to do the best he can to minimize his biases, even if he’s not exactly forthcoming about having them in the first place. And it’s a fascinating and enlightening exercise for us to attempt the same.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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