On Western Colonialism, Earning Respect in the Field, and Filmmakers Falling from the Sky

Flying around Sudan (and later South Sudan) for a number of years in Sputnik, a decrepit homemade plane, Austrian-French director Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends offers a survey of neocolonialism and how it's damaged Africa. His previous documentary, Darwin's Nightmare (2004) earned an Academy Award nomination. His latest takes a quasi-sci-fi approach, with overt references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and aerial views of shattered landscapes. While Sauper's interview subjects are suspicious of American and European (and even Chinese) industry, they warm up to him on that very subject. Sauper doesn't presume to speak for Africans but instead offers them a platform to express their anger. He shot the project himself, for the most part, with a DIY feel. The lengthy shoot depicts Sudan's decay from "mere" poverty into open civil war. StudioDaily spoke with Sauper in August in New York.

​StudioDaily: Did you build the plane before you had the idea for the film? 
Hubert Sauper: Well, I think it's the same thing. They emerged simultaneously. The plane was something that I needed because I was going to go on a crazy endeavor and I needed to create some crazy elements to enter this world. I needed it for many reasons. The most obvious was a means of transport in a place where there's no roads—and if there are roads, there's checkpoints and military stops. I would rather drop from the sky. There are many places where you can only go if you fall from the sky. Over the years—and I think you saw Darwin's Nightmare …
I found more and more the kind of mad symbolism and metaphor that surrounds airplanes—it's the white man's machine. It represents the industrial world's superiority. It can drop bombs and destroy. It can bring religious people and Hollywood stars. Knowingly or not, the U.N. airplane uses the "dove of peace" symbolism. I guess it's a celebratory Christian thought connected to airplanes. I just wanted to take this mass of odd connections and fuck with it. My airplane is obviously the opposite of a superior machine. It's a clownish element. It's a fairground thing. So the first reason was physical access and second was symbolic and access to people. When you come by car, you're an ordinary person. When you come with this ridiculous machine, people start laughing at you, and you have a very different relationship versus them being afraid of you. When someone laughs at you, you're in heaven as a filmmaker. You're in the game, because you can say "I need your help." It gives power to the people who are usually bulldozed by power. The colonial thing is usually to come and say "I own space and time." Colonialists have maps and make borders. It's all that, and maybe a last thing is that this little spaceship became the only place where we were safe, away from soldiers and orders and laws. So we had moments of what people would think as dangerous, but we were really safe. It's the core of the film. In the editing, I took a lot of it out, because I had uncountable hours of mishaps and the military telling us what to do and going after us. Most of the time, things went wrong but I took them out during the process of editing because the world I was describing was much more interesting. But some of it still needed to be there to lead us into the film. 
Was it hard to gain the trust of your interview subjects? 
No, it was easy. Because I am quite consciously exposing myself to them and their world. As well as I can and between their and my cultural codes, I'm telling them what I'm doing. People have quite a desire to communicate, sometimes. I make a communication that leads to a moment of truth. Sometimes people tell me stories or sing me songs. I didn't ask for the song. She just said "I have this song" on camera, so I saw and recorded it. It's a bit of a mystical process. 
Were you surprised at how un-selfconscious the Christian-American missionaries are when they say colonialist things like "South Sudan is the new Texas"? 
I've known this world for many years, and I've heard things which cannot be written. From a filmmaker's point of view, it's too good to be true. But I know that what fascinates me is not necessarily what they say, but what kind of conviction they say it with. The amazing narrative they came up with is the West's. How did we manage to destroy whole cultures and tell ourselves we come as friends and we're helping? This is very fascinating. It's a known story. The Spaniards got rid of a few million Aztecs and said we're helping them, so the Catholic Church said they needed to save their souls. We're still bombing people and saying we're helping them. We need to get rid of the bad guys. It doesn't seem to have changed. The scale of the destruction gets bigger, so our self-narrative gets more refined. I'm completely not an exception to the film. Even by being in this place [the interview took place at BBC Worldwide America], I'm feeding into some self-serving mechanism of our Western culture. I wasn't killed, I was able to show it. Everything's mad. 
Were you the only cameraman on the film? 
I was not, but I shot most of it. Sometimes I'm in the picture. Obviously that was someone else shooting. Some scenes were shot by my co-pilots. Usually I'm shooting and directing, with a tiny camera the size of this cup. 
What was in your usual camera/light/sound kit? 
I made sure I had a high-quality microphone and was close enough to my subjects to have good sound. Apart from the fact that I like to be close — it's nice to be close enough to see each other — it's easier. I look at my interview subject and not the camera lens. But then in the film, it looks like they're talking into the lens. I had this always ready, but it's very small gear. There was no soundman, just a small microphone on the HD camera.
Were you treated differently when you began wearing a uniform? 
Yeah! A lot differently, by the authorities. They have an unconscious mechanism to crack down on weakness and difference. If you're a white man and don't behave like a white man is supposed to behave in a colonial context—if you're not with the UN or Doctors Without Borders—people constantly ask who you're with. I would say "I'm with Barney" [Sauper often travels with fellow director and cinematographer Barney Broomfiedl] and that went down really badly. I understood through past experience and harassment that we have to take this into account. Even though we were flying a lawnmower, wearing uniforms got us respect. We were captains, and no one asked "What are you doing here?" anymore. It was ironic and obscene. We earned respect by giving ourselves four stars, but it was also part of the game. Filmmaking is kind of a game—an adventure in a true sense of the term—and wanting to know what's behind certain realities. There's always more questions. It was a great experience to learn things the hard way and be exposed to the beast. Of all places on the planet where I don't want to be, one's a Libyan air base. I just don't belong there. I can't stand protocol, or orders given by military and religious fanatics. It's everything that goes against my grain. It's there in high density. So I figured I have to throw myself into the eye of the hurricane to find my way out and gain the authority to talk about it. I had to expose myself, so I guess it was a necessity. The uniform was one thing, but we also had to understand Arabic air controllers. When you don't understand their codes, they just order you around in circles.
Did you ever look at an image and say "This is too beautiful" or "This is too ugly?" 
Yeah. Maybe not images, but scenes. There were scenes that were too self-serving. For example, we had the urge to share movies with locals. With a small projector on the bank of the Nile, we throw our own images on a sheet on the tale of our plane. We screened Buster Keaton movies. The kids in this village screamed in amazement. We filmed ourselves showing these films, feeling connected and being nice people. That was too much goodness! I loved the scenes but they were no good for the film. The few times that I'm in  the film, I'm a bit of a lost traveler. It was true, but I prefer this image to an NGO hero who comes with a flying cinema. Was your question more about aesthetics? 
When I interviewed Wim Wenders about The Salt of the Earth, he argued that making beautiful images of impoverished people was a way of giving them dignity. I immediately thought of Darwin's Nightmare, although I didn't bring it up to him. Sometimes making grimy, gritty images of poverty is the only thing you can really do. 
The Salt of the Earth uses some of my footage, actually. Wim is a good friend, and so is Salgado's son. They asked me for images from a film I made in the Congo. When you see a train going into the jungle, that's from a film I made. But it was just because they only had stills, not footage. Salgado was at the same time and place in 1997. That film is probably the most devastating image of humanity you've ever seen. It's 45 minutes long, and it really spoils your day, if not your next week. But it also has, to some extent, beauty. To some extent, it's despite that. It's a very different approach to Salgado. I don't really think in this kind of category. Sometimes pictures are aesthetic or artistic but not because I want them to be, just because I recorded something that comes out that way. Sometimes it comes out rough. It depends on your state of mind. If I had been in South Sudan on the day of the war, where a soldier shot footage that I used, I probably wouldn't have filmed it, and if I had filmed it, I probably wouldn't have used it. Why would I show that, apart from getting rid of my anguish? But I did use it because it came from a different source, at the exact moment with the guy by the pool and a prostitute. You hear the radio saying that war has broken out and then you see the images of the war in the oil fields. They're the exact oil fields you see earlier in the film. I have no recipe. I admire Wim for what he does, but our films are very different.

We Come as Friends opens today in New York City and August 21 in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. For other upcoming engagements, visit the official website: www.wecomeasfriends.com

All images © Hubert Sauper