Eszter Balint is a singer-songwriter/violinist and actress based in New York City. Her third solo album, Airless Midnight, was just released in August 2015 to critical praise. Eszter is a featured violinist and/or vocalist on several recordings by other artists, including Angels of Light, Swans, and Marc Ribot. As an actress, Eszter’s most recent appearance was as a lead in a six-episodes arc on Season 4 of Louie, directed by Louis CK. (Photo by Eric Schneider.)
It took about 30 seconds of the thrilling opening sequence to get me to fall in love with director Hubert Sauper’s We Come as Friends, his documentary follow-up to Darwin’s Nightmare. The film opens on a red aluminum child’s toy plane lying on a arid desert landscape amidst an army of ants, then cuts to a shot of a naked four- or five-year-old African boy, in traditional beaded necklace, walking alone, his stride exuding an unusual self-possessed naturalness and boundless confidence. At one point he turns his head, disarming the viewer by looking straight into the camera with an unselfconscious smile, before turning back around and continuing on his purposeful and determined walk. The accompanying soundtrack, an ambient collage of cicadas, faint conversations and local sounds, is slowly swallowed up by an ominous score.
I was instantly taken in by this visceral seduction. You know the feeling; when your senses are fully engaged, a little sharper and more alert than the norm, and you find yourself in that slightly excitable state almost akin to feeling smitten. I also knew that I couldn’t write about this film. No way. Its topic was too weighty, the problems addressed too vast, the stakes too high. I felt so far out of my league, in this unfamiliar world I do not know, this arid land I do not recognize; I was neither equipped nor fit to comment with intelligence. Last I heard, I was a downtown NYC-based actress-singer-songwriter type, not someone making the rounds lecturing on the history and legacy of colonialism in contemporary Africa.
But I was hooked and mesmerized, and so I watched. And watched. And the further I accompanied Sauper along this voyage, the more I realized my panic was needless. A sort of gentle kinship emerged and evolved between me and his film, which made things personal, approachable, and reduced the situation to a very human scale. I developed a sense of affection for the movie, its subject, and the not-always-beautiful landscape – which I think was a contagious infection I caught from the filmmaker. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this may be the director’s point. It is the lack of such an affection, curiosity and interest that is at the heart of some of the issues he tackles in the ironically titled We Come as Friends.
Sauper claimed in an interview that the makers of too many American documentaries about troubled foreign lands have a bad habit of imbuing their project with a note of hope, redemption, a fix to bad situations, perhaps due to practical realities of how the films get funded, possibly in addition to a sense of moral obligation to be proactive. He rejects this approach, claiming that it creates an agenda and corrupts the art of the documentary, and that filmmaking should be art, first and foremost. I get it. I understand and respect this point of view, and also somehow disagree. There are other, less conventional methods than, say, a 1-800 number offered to collect donations (though that is just what is called for in so many catastrophes, so let us not be glib) that engage the viewer and create just the necessary kinds of connections to start making a salve, drop by drop, for some of the major troubles around the world, many of which are created by blindness and lack of curiosity (read: connection) as much as cruelty. I will return to this issue of Sauper’s own paradoxical ability to tap into our better natures despite his refusal to take on the responsibility and role of “fixer.”
What follows the magnificent opening sequence I described is more or less a foreboding tale about the neocolonialist trends rapidly unfolding in Africa’s newest country, South Sudan. I don’t think it would make for a riveting read if I tried to relay a narrative of the film, which I am not sure is possible. What is more interesting to explore is the film’s tone, which is unusual given its subject. Stylistically, We Come as Friends veers far from the traditional “cautionary tale” documentary to which we are accustomed, complete with educational segments, disconcerting data, and the inevitable display of devastation and horror. Rather, its mood is by turns poetic, playful, whimsical, disorienting, humorous, surreal – and yes, sometimes devastating – as we accompany Sauper in his own self-built, toy-like, yet perfectly functional airplane on a journey to meet with various local South Sudanese men and women and their counterparts: the foreign investors, peacekeepers, missionaries, Chinese oil workers et al. Above all, the film’s tone gives it an utterly personal feel throughout. I felt a tender pulse beating at the heart of this project, even when looking at the most tragically boorish of its subjects.
And to call some of the subjects here on display boorish is maybe being kind. At one point, Sauper asks two Chinese oil workers (China is the biggest stakeholder in the country’s petroleum production) if they know or are friends with anyone outside the factory, in the village. One of them laughs and the other scoffs. Their answer? “No. They’re just locals.” Ouch.
Later we meet the British worker who is on duty to deactivate leftover mines and bombs by blowing them up, and who callously states while out on a call that he sincerely hopes it turns out to indeed be a bomb, for that keeps him working. Then come the Russian and Scottish peacekeepers who in a drunken stupor toast the independence of post-referendum South Sudan by declaring, “To peace-keepers and peace-drinkers,” and talk about their role absent of any apparent awareness, interest in, or even reference to the South Sudanese as actual humans. Humans who incidentally have already suffered so much under Khartoum’s rule. By this time, it is abundantly clear that something stinks in the state of South Sudan. Maybe in our postcolonial world we have only changed costumes, functions, our methods have become more refined, our self-interests less transparent, but the disease of the colonialist spirit prevails.
Of the many bad actors in this theater of foreign interests with their own agendas and seeming lack of curiosity about the locals whose land they happen to earn their paychecks on, the worst offenders are probably a pair of evangelist Oklahoman missionaries. They may mean well, but the air of piousness that descends when they enter the frame and, with a chuckle, declare, “South Sudan is the new Texas,” ominously asks: has all that much really changed since the days of Victoria? The most crushing moment comes after they “educate” the villagers about the wrongness of their children’s nudity, and we watch as one of them attempts to force a distraught toddler into thick white athletic socks. They do everything to distract and amuse the child, like circus clowns, and the harder they try, the harder the child resists, the louder he protests and cries. Everything about this interaction feels and looks out of place, and there is a strong whiff of aggression present: a refusal to know, to see, to even begin to ask questions. The scene is so cringe-worthy that I actually found it difficult to watch; never has the act of putting socks on someone seemed so violent. The combination of the child’s genuine distress and the absolute buffoonery of my well-meaning idiot fellow countrymen was too painful to swallow.
The various encounters with locals are a little more difficult to relate in writing. The people we meet are many and varied, the scenes at times peculiar, unsettling, funny, and heartbreaking (there is one revelation in particular at the end of the film that is haunting and will not go down easy). But again, what is notable is how these scenes always manage to strike a profoundly personal chord. I would argue that it’s these engagements with the locals that form the heart and blood of the film.
Which brings me back to Sauper’s wish to distance himself – perhaps rightfully – from do-gooder-style documentary filmmaking, and my Polyanna-ish insistence that he is surely doing some good himself, in his own unorthodox way. By observing the South Sudanese with such a fresh, tenderhearted and unobtrusive eye, he forces us to do the same. By the end of this film, I felt that Africa, South Sudan, with its problems, even its exploitative invaders, many of whom are “here to help,” the whole situation, are not such a terribly faraway mess after all, in some improbable distant land. It concerns my fellow humans, and I had come to love this place just a little bit through this journey, even felt a certain privilege and joy in having had the good fortune to accompany Hubert and watch him engage with his, and our, fellow human brothers and sisters in South Sudan. Who, by the way, are neither any less or more special and precious than anyone else on this or any other continent. Though this may be the world’s most obvious point, why do so many of the foreign workers coming into South Sudan seem utterly tone deaf to just this very notion?
Hubert Sauper lovingly engages us in asking this question and confronts us with its troubling reality. I believe this too is a step, a form of activism – and a heroic one at that.