We Come As Friends is terrifyingly direct and intimate. Portraying the neocolonialist exploitation of the recently established South Sudan, director Hubert Sauper devises a metaphor that’s both risky and brilliantly evocative. The filmmaker links the first world’s invasion of the country—and the prevailing legacy of Europe, China, and America’s respective occupations of Africa in general—with the famed American moon landing in 1969. That’s a pivotal, often unambiguously celebrated, moment in our country’s history, but to an elderly Sudanese man it’s yet another illustration of the entitled colonial desire to gobble up whatever it wants while egotistically fashioning what remains in its own image. The opening passages, shot from a plane Sauper helped to design, effectively suggest that South Sudan is a beautiful and forbidden alien world occupied by a tribe of nude humanoids. Sudanese children, some of whom are carrying water bottles with corporate logos, are shot in silhouettes that encourage us to associate them with the stereotypical vision of the space alien as bobble-headed, small-bodied other.
Initially, you’ll probably respond to Sauper’s haunting and considerable formal dexterity while blanching at the blatant objectification, particularly from the humanist director of Darwin’s Nightmare. But there’s a point to this conceit, as it shows us the South Sudan as it might be seen by the superpowers that have descended upon the country so as to mine its considerable resources, particularly oil, minerals, and timber, all the while making overtures toward helping the inhabitants that are either ignored or severely misadvised to begin with. Sauper interviews Chinese oil drillers, who hypocritically condemn the United States for thoughtlessly exploiting the land, as well as ex-British military officers who dress the children in sunglasses while condescendingly pontificating on the natives’ inability to understand the negotiations around them. We also hear from members of the Sudanese government, who tow a party line that plays as a grotesque parody of the American conservative belief that the poor need only to work to assuage their poverty. Unmentioned by the government is the theft of billions of dollars that should go toward village aide, which is grossly needed in the fresh aftermath of the country’s succession from the Republic of Sudan.
Sauper sketches in this larger political context succinctly and gracefully, but We Come as Friends is most interesting and valuable for the footage it provides of the various direct interactions between the South Sudanese and whoever the interloper of the moment may be, whether they’re of Chinese, British, American, or other origin. In the tradition of colonialists, it never occurs to any of the first-world powers that their “improvements” might not be desired—a tendency that’s most memorably and infuriatingly illustrated by a party of Texas Christians who pride themselves on only altering the portions of Sudanese life that conflict with the Bible, such as the villagers’ propensity for wearing little or no clothing.
Gentrification is the least of the Sudanese’s problems though, as we see villages that are reduced, by poverty and warfare, to rubble blowing in the wind. We Come As Friends grows increasingly hopeless, contrasting the alien paradise of the opening with the wastelands that resemble corporate dump sites, which isn’t too far from the literal truth, and cumulates in an interview with an old man who was tricked by American officials into signing away barely quantifiable amounts of land and resources for a paltry 25,000 American dollars. Sauper’s techniques can be blunt, and he traffics in “noble savage” clichés that can be unintentionally as well as intentionally dehumanizing, but he earns his anger. At its best, We Come As Friends spins that outrage into an impressionist rhapsody of despair.