‘We Come As Friends’ and the Advent of Post-Apocalyptic Nonfiction

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The world is ending.

“Post-apocalyptic” is a term we usually reserve for elaborately conceived, nightmarish fiction cinema. Mad Max, Waterworld and Planet of the Apes all come to mind. Post-apocalyptic nonfiction, on the other hand, sounds like an impossibility. The world still exists, after all. Society has yet to completely collapse. Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner still wear normal clothes.

Yet we live in a collapsing ecosystem. Global climate change has unleashed dramatic and devastating weather events. Seas are drying up, methane is springing up from the ice in the Arctic, and countless species are going extinct. We’ve known this for some time now, and it’s already had an impact on nonfiction cinema. The wave of environmentally motivated films did not crest with An Inconvenient Truth, nor The Cove three years later. It’s become difficult to imagine a documentary landscape without these targeted pleas for environmental awareness.

That said, none of these can really be called apocalyptic. They do frequently include a lot of doom and gloom, but there is always a third-act pivot toward solutions. All is not lost; here is what we can do to save the planet; here is where to donate. And occasionally, here is an uplifting song that may find its way to the Oscars. Some of these films are worthwhile, in spite of their lack of artistic ambition.

Take Racing Extinction, the new film from The Cove director Louie Psihoyos, as an example. Its subject is the coming Sixth Extinction, the first of its kind to be caused by human behavior. To illustrate this catastrophe, Psiyohos uses some astonishing sounds and images. The final chirps of the world’s only remaining Kaua’i O’o are particularly compelling, singing his unique melody for a mate that will never come. But by the third act of the film these touchstones of loss make way for a determined appeal, mostly taking the form of awareness-raising efforts designed to energize the public and thereby fix the problem.

The films of Hubert Sauper are not so optimistic. They aren’t even documentaries, a term that Sauper himself rejects. “It is a very ugly word,” he says in an interview with Nonfics’s Jamie Maleszka. “It comes from document and proof and a rational delivery of information usually from groups without power to groups with power.” The assertion of objectivity and its agreement with preconceived notions of power, that Western philanthropy can solve the world’s problems, is dishonest even when it’s endorsed by someone as articulate and well-meaning as George Clooney. Sauper’s two feature films dive into the economic, political and environmental realities of two different African nations. Yet they are not documentaries, at least not in the conventional sense.

They are, however, post-apocalyptic cinema. By abandoning the notion that enough advocacy can fix anything, Sauper produces films that are at once truthful and part of the cinematic tradition of Armageddon. His newest, We Come As Friends, is a tour of colonialism in South Sudan, both before and after its U.S.-backed independence. He introduces Africa as another planet, one that has been conquered by centuries of malevolent invaders. He presents it from above, as if descending from space to observe the recent developments. It’s like one of Doris Lessing’s space fiction novels, the study of a distant planet through its long-term historical trends rather than a narrow narrative. There is an overwhelming sense of aftermath, fueled by references to the initial 19th century armageddon of European invasion and the 1884 Berlin Conference that imposed unwelcome national borders on the continent.

We Come As Friends shares a surprising number of themes and images with this year’s loudest fictional entry in the genre, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Sauper is also attracted to bold, obvious displays of power. Chinese oil men drive past an impoverished village on their way to their plant, ignoring the local inhabitants whose water supply has been poisoned by their work. A local elder in South Sudan is either forced or tricked into selling 600,000 hectares of his community’s land to an American developer for only $25,000. In Darwin’s Nightmare, Sauper’s Academy Award-nominated 2004 film about the decline of Lake Victoria in Kenya, local politicians are seen laughing at the prospect of environmental clean-up in a very public forum. No one is quite as flamboyant as Fury Road’s Immortan Joe, but Sauper shares Miller’s fascination with the twisted images of abused power.

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Moreover, there are other genre signifiers everywhere. The pilot of Sauper’s plane has a little music box that plays the Communist Internationale, a piece of bizarre nostalgia for a now-forgotten dream that sticks out in a nation brutalized by capitalism. Divorced from its context, it hearkens back in much the same way as the use of Hello, Dolly! in Wall-E or the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. On the other end of the spectrum, a family of Texan missionaries that Sauper finds in South Sudan have brought along solar-powered bibles, audio-books that can be played for illiterate targets of their missionary work. It’s a piece of futuristic technology that contrasts with some of the nostalgia around it, a further example of post-apocalyptic imagery. These objects highlight the strangeness of the setting, a time of trauma with one foot dangling in the past and another rushing into the future.

These Texan Christians, who come across as awkward interlopers in the new nation, are also an important piece of the broader landscape that Sauper is painting. Like the world of Mad Max, We Come As Friends is full of varying different groups vying for control, each of them possessing their own bizarre costumes and props. This particular group is obsessed with clothing the local children, forcing socks on the feet of otherwise naked toddlers. Yet they have built their house on land that was previously used for grazing, erecting fences to bar the community from using the land to raise livestock and thus feed these same children. This type of hypocrisy can be found in the actions of many of the people Sauper meets, and it encourages a feeling of disgusted awe. It’s a visceral reaction not far from those evoked by the introduction of each new grotesquerie in Fury Road’s costume and production design.

Finally, the foundation of both the fiction and nonfiction of the apocalypse is the devastated landscape itself. The destruction of Lake Victoria by invasive species in Darwin’s Nightmare and the tearing up of Sudanese land by oil companies in We Come As Friends are economically motivated disasters that loom in the mind and cast every wide shot of the landscape as a glimpse of a failing planet. Sauper’s camera is attracted to the widest landscapes, overhead shots of villages to be demolished and scale models of the industrial compounds that will replace them. The flat, windswept setting is as crucial to Sauper as it is to Miller.

Of course, We Come As Friends is not the first nonfiction film to highlight the environmental collapse of the planet through devastating, apocalyptic landscape photography. Peter Mettler’s Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands, produced by Greenpeace, is entirely focused on the vast planes of destruction on Canada’s oil fields. Topophilia, Peter Bo Rappmund’s study of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is equally powerful, if not as brutal. Lav Diaz’s Storm Children: Book One looks at the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, quietly traveling past upended villages and grounded ships.

Sauper’s films are different than these others, however, in their direct confrontation of the economic and political implications of these disasters. Not content to silently show the natural results of this destruction, he paints a post-apocalyptic panorama of all its human causes and ramifications. The cumulative effect of this approach is one of near-hopelessness. The international financial interests in the continued exploitation of South Sudanese land seem comically impossible to counter. There is no third-act switch to the hope for the future. There are no profiles of do-good NGOs. There is no pitch on behalf of organizations who can use your money to save the world.

In this sense, We Come As Friends is more honest. Sauper’s use of genre conventions borrowed from fiction films does not make his work fictional. His truth is simply broader, more dependent upon the experience of seeing the world as it is than the interjections of expert commentary and factual context. He understands that a globally significant disaster cannot be solved through the good will built up during screenings. Rather than chasing this already problematic goal of Western financial support, he has chosen to pursue something more ineffable. The result is a film that not only reinforces this new genre of post-apocalyptic nonfiction, but pushes it politically and artistically forward. The world is ending, and pretending otherwise has begun to seem artistically dishonest.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.