Berlin film festival features We Come As Friends, a documentary on South Sudan
Given that it was in Berlin in 1895 where the world powers of the time descended with their rulers to carve up Africa, thus laying the foundations for the continent’s bloody modern history, it seems apt that the German capital has played host to two of the most captivating and eye-opening documentaries that detail this colonial rule’s horrific consequences.
In 2012 it was Sons of the Clouds, Álvaro Longoria and Javier Bardem’s film that delved into the largely unknown plight of the Sahwaris in western Sahara, who were under Moroccan occupation or in refugee camps. This year, the Oscar-nominated Austrian director Hubert Sauper turns the attention to the world’s youngest country, South Sudan, in We Come As Friends.
Six years in the making, this chronicle of one of the most troubled parts of Africa offers a rude awakening to the reality of what had been promised as solution. Sauper was in Sudan when the south gained independence and was formed in 2011, following a referendum in which 98.83 per cent voted in favour of the split. But what followed is what the director describes as “one big land grab” by world powers.
In a strange, miniature, two-seater plane he designed himself, Sauper drops in on Chinese oilfields in the north, which suck up 300,000 barrels of oil per day and are mostly staffed by Chinese who have little knowledge or appreciation of the land around them. Nearby, local villages warn that due to such practices, their water supplies have been poisoned. In the south, he speaks to American missionaries handing out solar-powered Bible readers.
“The interesting part is how we come up with a narrative that makes us – over centuries – justify our actions and whitewash our actions. It’s fascinating, yet terrifying and sad,” says Sauper.
While the Berlin Conference may have created the initial colonial boundaries back in 1895, Sauper says the recent creation of South Sudan was actually forged in Texas by the Bush family. The film shows a contract worth just US$25,000 (Dh92,000) for 600,000 hectares of land, with full exploitation rights, made out to Howard Douglas, a former United States ambassador and coordinator for refugee affairs.
“In this capacity, he went to South Sudan to care for refugees. And a couple of years later, coincidentally, he got this contract,” says Sauper, adding that even seemingly charitable US investment in the country comes with a firm eye on its spoils.
“The US government has insisted that they will give $2 billion dollars to South Sudan for development. Only, there is the little fact that in the ground there is $600bn in oil. So, with $2bn you get access to $600bn. It’s a little investment for a jackpot. Those proportions are mind-boggling.”
South Sudan is back in the news, with renewed violence between government forces and rebels supported by the north and reports of massacres involving thousands of civilians as the country descends towards civil war. Much of the fighting, says Sauper, is over the lucrative oilfields, many of which straddle the new border. We Come As Friends closes with grim cameraphone-shot footage by a soldier in one of the action spots, interspersed with clips of foreign expats lounging in a new spa built for overseas workers.
Having explored the disastrous effects of globalisation on Tanzania in his Academy Award-winning 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare, Sauper says he plans to conclude his trilogy on Africa by looking at modern-day slavery.
“Africa was exposed to three waves of humiliations – slavery, colonisation and globalisation. These three sections of history are very similar. I think this third leg, slavery, is going to be the most complicated one for me to describe.”