We Come As Friends sounds like the title of a science fiction film, not a documentary about contemporary Africa. Early on, a Sudanese storyteller narrates how the white man has claimed even the moon as his own. In this film’s worldview, the interlopers from rich nations are otherworldly invaders, far scarier than any alien foe Hollywood ever dreamed up.
Director Hubert Sauper took a team to Sudan in 2011, as it was about to undergo a major schism. South Sudan was in the midst of asserting its independence. Sauper visited various parts of the country where outside interests had taken control, often to the detriment of the citizens. A Chinese oil derrick turns massive profits while poisoning the local water supply. Christian missionaries claim livestock land for their large houses and forcibly clothe naked children. A village elder has been tricked into signing away hundreds of thousands of acres for nothing. At every turn, the interlopers claim to only have the best interests of the Sudanese at heart.
Sauper’s previous film, Darwin’s Nightmare, focused on the specific social and environmental ecosystem of a town on the shore of Lake Victoria. It explored globalization on an intimate level, letting us get to know a few people touched by it. We Come As Friends takes the macro view, working as a collage of vignettes, each one representing a leap from one part of South Sudan to the other, never lingering with one character for more than a few minutes. The result is that in little more than an hour and a half, the viewer feels bombarded by the entirety of a nation’s economic woes. It’s almost oppressive, and too much to take.
I didn’t think Sauper could match the grimness of Darwin’s Nightmare, which saw one of the subjects die violently during its filming process. Yet it manages to surpass the earlier film by presenting the modern economic imperialism in South Sudan as an almost post-apocalyptic milieu. Seemingly every location is marred with trash blowing in the dust. The people look either enraptured in jingoistic fervor or utterly defeated. There doesn’t appear to be any way out — the forces of the West (America) and East (China) alike have sunk in their claws.
Nearly every individual sequence in We Come As Friends could stand alone as an enraging, surreal short film. Take, for instance, the house of the missionaries who hand out solar-powered bibles and unwanted clothing. The patriarch proudly brags about how he bought a 99-year lease on the land, against the wishes of the local tribe. He speaks to family at home through Skype. His terrifying young child wails and smashes a toy against the table as he demands that the people on the other end show him a gift they have for him: a gun. Later, a Texan housewife forces socks onto a crying toddler’s feet. A man who seems to be the archetype of the clueless white guy missionary, replete with polo shirt, khaki shorts and sandals, gives a speech to a tribe on how they will surely prosper as long as they pray properly.
We Come As Friends is a nightmarish tone poem of such absurdity. At an economic conference, foreign investors pay lip service to the idea of bringing in business to benefit the Sudanese while barely concealing their hunger for the land’s resources. President Mayardit, sporting a cowboy hat gifted to him by George W. Bush, promises a new era of peace and prosperity for all. In the next scene, the world’s newest country is descending into violence over ethnic clashes that go back to the colonial partition of the land. This is the situation. It is ugly, it seems unsolvable, and it cannot be ignored. But it will be, mostly. We are content to ignore not just South Sudan but most of Africa. It is far away, like a distant planet.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2014.