Hubert Sauper On the Beauty and Nightmare Of ‘We Come as Friends’

By Jamie Maleszka


Within moments of meeting filmmaker Hubert Sauper, you are struck with a certainty: he can assuredly talk with most anyone. His latest documentary, We Comes As Friends, is a jaw-dropping testament to this certitude. Teetering on political parody and the darkest of dark comedies, the film is a dizzying, which-way-is-up exploration of the Sudan at the moment the African nation is being divided into two separate halves. All the while, outside colonizing forces are poaching its resources and snatching possession of its land. Sudanese warlords, Chinese oil workers, American evangelists and UN peacekeepers all clamor for the lion’s share. We Comes As Friends is a mirror of its creator — inquiring, frank and utterly complex.

Accompanied only by a co-pilot, Sauper flew a tiny, self-made plane, christened Sputnik, into the heart of the nightmare. Over the course of two and a half years, they survived bouts of malaria, being attacked by armed gunmen, threats from the military, “flying tin can” mishaps and the dense cloud of madness that consumes the Sudan.

I recently met with Sauper to discuss his surreal journey, the dangers of an audience leaving the theater feeling comfortable and the beauty of the abyss.

Nonfics: You did not create a feel-good, aren’t-we-doing-a-great-thing-with-an-awful-situation, don’t-worry-George-Clooney-has-everything-under-control version of the situation in Sudan. You present the nightmare. You go for the messiness of truth. Was this film less of an idea and more of a calling?

Hubert Sauper: It is a lifestyle, right, to think in such categories? And it is a very big privilege also to kind of use someone else’s money — governments and cultural funds — and go out and make a flying thing and come back with a film after years of work, which is a totally odd thing. A calling? I’m not sure if I understand it. It sounds very heavy, right?

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Not in any religious sense, but in so far as being utterly compelled to go and explore the pathology of situation?

Yes. In this sense, yes. It’s like you kind of develop the passion and curiosity for things where you know that you are never going to really find answers, but it’s just a crazy, rich and fantastic process especially when you are in a flow with someone you are talking with. You know you are on safe ground among this madness and you are ready, even mentally, to confront the warlord who forgets the national anthem or who has potentially killed I don’t know how many people. I don’t know about him precisely, but you know, in this kind of category. You can take a lot of bullshit if you acknowledge that it is part of the equation of life and it is a fantastic thing too. I am fascinated by the abyss, by the contradictions and the beauty, obviously, too.

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For those I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening interactions, you must almost split in two. As a filmmaker, you have to be thinking: we’ve just struck gold. But as human, are you utterly terrified? Equally exhilarated?

Yeah. It’s all those things. But, you are kind of in a situation of grace and in a way, paradise when you have these kinds of encounters. And it is, I don’t know, obviously in the film, for people who don’t know film or don’t have this visual experience or education, they usually think that someone just travels with a camera and things just happen the way they happen as if by chance. Of course, nothing falls by chance into your life or out of your life. While filming, a lot of it is synchronization with people, with situations or just being ready — an energy. It sounds very esoteric, but I think you know what I mean. It is really hard to describe what it is. But, when you talk about truth, it is somehow a moment of truth more than you can wish for. The face of someone who tells you something and immediately you experience the moment and you are there, in the here and now and you feel something sacred happen. Again, no religious connotation.

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When I recently spoke with Joshua Oppenheimer regarding The Look of Silence, he pushed back against being labeled a storyteller. He feels that he is more of an explorer, excavating insight in non-verbal ways, very much like the moments that you just spoke of. Do you then consider yourself a storyteller?

Yes. A storyteller in the old sense was also an artist. Somebody who gives you part of the information and pauses and looks to the five people around him. I think Joshua is a storyteller. I appreciate his work and maybe he wants to brand himself differently, but I am a storyteller.

Maybe what is storytelling contains part of legend and myth. I think we maybe have to acknowledge that they are part of reality. Your [site] is called Nonfics, right? I don’t know if you want to talk about this, but I was just thinking about your title. Nonfics is kind of nice because I always have a problem with the word documentary. It is a very ugly word. It comes from document and proof and a rational delivery of information usually from groups without power to groups with power, from let’s say the South to the Empire in order to make the powerful more powerful. I live in Paris and this word has a very heavy other connotation. When France was not a colonizer, but was colonized so to say by the Nazis, the Nazi soldiers would go through Paris and call people out and say “Document.” I’ve been thinking about it. It kind of makes me uneasy almost, the word documentary. But, in our thing, it’s doc for sale and Everything is with this word. Nonfics is nicer.

I don’t know if you know, I had a moment in life when I was under heavy fire after Darwin’s Nightmare by a group of people who turned out to be financed by arms traders. This is after three years of courts cases. But, in the beginning that connection wasn’t clear. It was clear for me but not to others. They were claiming that my film Darwin’s Nightmare was fiction. Which is an insult when you work based on fact. It is sabotage of the work. I had to and continue to insist that even though the form is pushed in various, so-to-say creative and artistic directions, the content is still very factual.

But, then of course I’m sure you understand that I am not representing the generation of the fly-on-the-wall [filmmakers]. Even though I appreciate them very much, a lot of these guys are friends, but I think you can no longer hold this discourse anymore because I cannot be here and say I am not here. You can be a fly on the wall, but a fly that everyone looks at.

I also trust that you, as a viewer, understand some scenes [in We Come as Friends]. You probably know that when you come to a Chinese oil field and you say, “Hello. I just dropped from the sky”, they probably don’t come to you and say can we talk about space exploration with you. Of course not. It is because I started talking about it. So, I am already part of this reality. In a way I am already altering their reality. I say, “I see you guys as aliens in a space ship,” and they laugh and they say, “But no, you are the alien.” So we have this thing going. I would say, “Do know the sci-fi films that I grew up with?” “Oh yeah. All of it,” they say. And they have all the DVDs and they put on the DVDs and they looked at it and I filmed them and I’m looking at it. So, you know that, right? And you know that it is itself a form where I acknowledge, as a filmmaker, that I am part of the film — as Joshua [Oppenheimer] is — in a very big way. You can’t not acknowledge that you are here. I am also documenting my own presence — my confusion and fear. All of it.

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From the start of the film, that is laid plain. It is through your presence on screen, the camera’s presence, even the plane’s presence that the audience also becomes, by extension, the “other”. We, too, are the interlopers. Your presence is vital in conveying that. You mentioned before that you work with facts. I feel like you certainly work with facts, but that you also create from a palette of questions. Is there a preconceived mandate that you work with in terms of your process?

Well, there are a lot of things that are preconceived in the sense that life happens in an elliptical shape, in cycles and circles that come back, like a piece of music or something. Mark Twain wrote that history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes. I guess I took this as a kind of mantra for the film.

But, also there’s a history there for me. I have seen in my life in Central Africa an ambassador talking on more than 50 occasions. I know his brain by heart. I know what he is going to say and so it is preconceived in a way that I can see what he is going to say. I see that what he is going to say means one thing and what is behind it means something else. I can help share what is behind it, but there is always another layer and another layer. It is almost pre-written. The script is written — by life. I know that there’s going to be a crowd and the missionaries are going to talk about god. So, then you can start from there. Then the coincidences arise. For instance, when that tribal guy loses his temperament and basically does his last dance while the ambassador is giving his speech. He is at the end of his million-year-long tradition because the next dance will be for a safari tour for dollars. I mean it’s crazy.

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How do you keep going then? I mean, you’ve actually looked into the abyss. How do you then go about your daily life, grab a cup of coffee and go about your way?

[Laughs] What should I do? Jump off a bridge?

It could help sales.

[Laughs] Like right now?

Please don’t do it.

I’m done with this interview. [Laughs] Glad I was able to get one last interview in before the end.

Man. The guy scheduled to talk to you after me is going to be so pissed.

[Laughs] I don’t know. I really don’t know. But, I want to finish this thought about this last scene. Again the tribal leader, the tribal guy that comes up, it means also nothing and everything. It is only when you are in this landscape of thinking for years that you kind of say: This is a moment that I better catch in my camera because otherwise I lose it. The technical reflexes of a filmmaker, for me it was when I have to catch this guy and the ambassador at one point in one picture because otherwise you don’t believe it. I had to kind of run across the field and catch him running behind the ambassador. So you can see him. All of it is just what happens in life but also all of it is “preconceived” in a way that it is repetitive. It happens all the time, over and over. You have to see it in a certain way and then see it twice and then three times and then feel it and then have the urge to communicate that feeling and then catch it on film and then we get to sit here and talk to each other. Then it’s great. [Laughs] Then it’s good.

Oh it’s that simple?

Yep. Thanks. No, I’m kidding. No, but this is great. It answers your other question too. How can you deal with this mountain of madness? Talking with you. This is the work.

This is the sanity.

Yes. So, this is good. Our conversation contains hope. Peace.

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Are you optimistic?

I think I am. For this reason. But, a lot of people won’t see that or don’t want to see that because the film shows all this craziness and they’ll say, “You don’t show us a solution and you don’t show us a way out. Where are the lights?”

Does art need to offer solutions? It seems like that would then be the store-bought version of this story, possibly giving a false sense of safety for the viewer.

Yes. The common ground narrative, particularly of North American documentaries, has come to a consensus to be issue driven, to contain the problem and the solution towards the end of it and the solution usually comes from somewhere in our culture and the problem happens somewhere in [Africa]. It not only feeds into the narrative that I was trying to unveil, but it also is politically dangerous. It comforts people instead of politicizing them. You walk out of the cinema comfortable.

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It promotes the feeling that it’s being taken care of? No need to worry, someone is handling that?

And that someone is from our culture and they are someone you can identify with. And that you kind of know that your tax money goes to those people or you can donate. [Laughs] It’s all kind of… sick.

But, specifically to that point: in the film you found local people that defy that narrative of the colonizer knows best. You selected locals that know the history. They are the “knowing” ones. They see the future. You even set yourself up as the hero, yes, but also as the buffoon. It entirely counters the age-old narrative of the “savage”.

Yes. But, it’s a long way to go to fight that train running one-way. It’s so engrained in our culture. This whole philanthropy industry, this whole narrative, it just keeps going. More and more people I guess see that, but the train is still running.

We Come as Friends opens at the IFC Center in New York City this Friday with other cities to follow.