In the resonant, multi-layered documentaries Hubert Sauper has shot in Africa—including his latest, We Come As Friends—people suffering the effects of colonialism, capitalism and corruption are not presented as objects to be pitied or patronized. Instead, prostitutes, street kids, and sad-eyed Ukrainian pilots talk to the camera, laying out both the roots and the specifics of the problems they face, the experts who help us understand what is going on and why. Sauper, who flies into the sometimes precarious situations he films in a small plane he built himself, talked to me by phone earlier this month from his home in Paris.
You opened both Darwin’s Nightmare and this film with plane’s-eye views of Africa, where people are the size of ants—or where you are actually looking down at ants. Does that, for you, typify the perspective most Europeans have of Africa?
You know, that’s a really good question. I’ve asked myself that question and I have no answer. I find things in my films that reoccur and I just watch the film and I see it. But it’s just because my brain works that way; I didn’t necessarily make the connection, you know?The opening shot in We Come as Friends was on the runway of the Chinese oil field. We were held by soldiers and we couldn’t move away from our airplane. Ants were running on the ground and I was just playing around; I was basically just trying to do something with my time. The ants scurried back and forward and it became such a fascinating shot for me, and for the film.
But it worked the other way around: it wasn’t like, “I need a shot with ants” and then I found them. In a way, it was pure documentary. In Darwin’s Nightmare, it was also the outcome of a long time in the control tower when nothing was happening and then the guy [an air traffic controller] went crazy and went after the flies on the wall, or whatever. The bees. It was also just an outcome of an immediate situation, which was presenting itself to me.
To what degree do you discover the shape of your movie in the editing process?
I shoot for a long period and I edit for a long period, and I do it overlapping: I shoot something and I edit something and then shoot again and edit something. I have a quite clear feeling about what a movie is going to look like, and I have a lot of experience in the area where I work. I know the brain of warlords. I know what they will be saying. I know what the discourse of the ambassadors is, more or less. So when I see the situation of the ambassador talking to the locals, I kind of know what he is going to say, so I can concentrate [while filming] on more subtle, you know, things between the lines. And then these scenes that seem to be predicated on pure coincidence, it seems like pure coincidence, but it’s something that I kind of saw coming.
In the scene with the ambassador and the other world leaders, I didn’t know he would be running around. I didn’t foresee that, of course. But I could foresee that something odd was going to happen, because the whole situation was odd. So my eye was out for the oddness of the situation, and not for the obvious and very kind of banal discourse of the ambassador.
Do you have other work that has brought you to Africa or do you only go to make movies?
I only go there as a filmmaker, and as somebody who is trying to make sense of the situation. I’m trying to make sense of our time, and I’ve found that Africa is, for me, the most surefire place to make sense that I’ve found. I film to see, basically, what the hell are we doing, you know? What went wrong? There is a lot of stuff which is very universal. I’m looking for the kind of human condition in general. And the humor too. How kitsch it can get. It’s fascinating.
This is basically about the impunity of narratives: How narratives are being created and repeated. Like, one person says “We have to bring the Africans light” and another says “Yeah, we have to bring them light and they’re stupid and they’re all these kinds of things.” To kind of implicate this colonial mindset, you know?
There are no frameworks imposed by an omniscient voiceover or outside experts in your documentaries. You make local people the experts instead of bring in talking-heads experts from the outside. Do you reject imposing that kind of framework on the material because part of the problem is that we are taught to think there are outside experts who know what should be done, and if we just did what they said then everything would be okay?
I have a lot of experts in my films, but those experts are not really experts, and I want to give them the most rope to hang themselves with. The former warlord who’s singing the national anthem is an expert. He’s like chief of parliament. And his expertise is on tape: He says what we should do. We should give away our land to whoever may come. But I give the audience the liberty to understand that expert in a different way. (Laughs) Sometimes it’s almost too obvious.
If you give microphones to people who have power, you are acceding to power structures. If you give them the word, you know, here’s someone who is telling the truth, here’s what you should believe, this is basically the colonialists’ message. And if you find a kid in the village who says something amazing and smart and universally brilliant and human, then you are helping with the emancipation process.
There’s another question you asked, as to why I might not basically make a statement telling us what to see or believe. This is a very old-fashioned way of making a documentary. If you go someplace and say, “I am the expert and I am going to tell you the truth,” that is also a very arrogant position, and a very boring position. The NGO world has this mantra: don’t give fish to someone who is hungry but tell him how to catch fish, or give him the tools to catch fish, right? Well, translating that to an intellectual context, you don’t want to tell people what to think. You want to give people the tools to make up their minds and to feel creative. When you have the feeling in a movie that you kind of discovered something on your own, this is called the art of cinema, right? And if you don’t do that, it is, I don’t know, propaganda or information or I don’t know what. So that’s a very basic difference, you know?
I think parents sometimes make that mistake with their kids: they tell them what is the truth and what is not, whatever. Other parents encourage their kids to ask questions.
How do you gain the trust of the people you interview? After all, as you say in the title of this movie, the people who exploit the colonized so often come as friends, as you did. How do you convey to them that you aren’t just doing the same thing and that they can trust you? Because they probably haven’t seen your other movies, so how do they know what you are planning to do with this footage you’re shooting?
Okay, there are two answers to that. The first is that “we came as friends” is a line that we use ourselves all the time. And it’s in there because it’s true. I didn’t come there because I want to buy their land, I don’t want to eat their food, I didn’t want to challenge them. I just wanted to interact with them and exchange as human beings.
Politicians, warlords, oil field managers – they have power, you know? Power over other people. And here I come in this stupid like flying lawnmower, and there is no organization [behind me]. I kind of out myself for people. I think it’s almost a duty of intellectuals, and journalists like yourself, to oppose huge blocks of mainstream thinking or the patriarchy or whatever. This little airplane was a Trojan horse, in a way.
The other answer to “how did I get their trust?” is: By communicating a lot. We came to places where people had no idea if we were Arabs or Chinese. Because we were white, they thought we were Arabs and we would have bombs. We traveled in a world with no cameras, trying to put a film together. It was kind of a huge work of interaction. I talked to people a lot.
Did you start filming people right away or did you interact with them for a while before you turned on the camera, or did it depend on the situation?
It depended on the situation. I always had my camera, and it was a tiny camera so I always had it on to record something, almost like a diary. So, for example, the man who was kind of like the character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the guy with the white hat, I saw him at the side of the road. I was on a little motorbike taxi. I got off and gave my taxi driver a couple dollars and said goodbye, and I stayed with this man in the white uniform. I said, “Do you mind if I film you while we talk?” And then he said “Give me the camera. I want to record you.” So he took my camera and filmed me for half an hour. We were talking and it kept running – cameras don’t need tape any more, so they can just run. And for half an hour he questioned me on what am I doing here, and he was going on and on about how naïve I am, and then at one point I took the camera again. He was very very present and very together – it was a very strong encounter. So that was one situation. And sometimes it was a long time, years of writing letters and meeting up before filming a scene.
Is it often just you and your camera or are there usually other people helping you film?
I have the camera, and I am filming.
And you don’t have a sound person or anything?
No, no sound person. I’m filming, and sometimes I give the camera to my very good friend and copilot. He is a very good filmmaker himself and he was always around. But mostly I’m filming while I’m having these conversations. It’s more conversations than interviews. So I’m recording these conversations, and my fears and my hopes and my strange questions are essentially a character in the films. It’s a strange situation. People are strange when you’re a stranger.
I’ve seen some other strong and interesting movies about African lately,
Including Timbuktu, Concerning Violence, and Beats of the Antonov. Do you think there are more interesting movies being made about Africa now than there were before?
Yeah. First of all, there are going to be more and more good films out of the southern hemisphere in general, I think. But I don’t make films about Africa at all. I just make films that happen to be set in Africa. I don’t think they’re about Africa, really. They’re about many things. It’s [We Come As Friends] about the Chinese. It’s about Europe a lot. In a way, it’s a film about Europe; it’s just set in Africa. It’s about the devastation of Africa when the Europeans divided it up with 52 national borders. And then a couple of years ago, the way the whole international community agreed to have another national border created [the creation of South Sudan, which is documented in We Come As Friends], and also agreed for it to go straight through the oilfields.
I was totally sure, and was sort of steering the whole argument of my film toward this situation, that it was going to end in a fire. You don’t have to be a prophet to foresee that. I could foresee the war on the border after the election.
It seems to me that a lot of what is happening worldwide these days is that historically warring tribes who were forced into becoming fellow countrymen by a line drawn on a map from afar by a colonial power—an act you illustrate in We Come As Friends—are now fighting to become separate and self-governing again. So that’s one huge strand of history that’s also a big part of this movie.
Yeah. There was a worldwide epidemic of land-grabbing by all kinds of methods, and now people are grabbing natural resources. There are places on the planet, like Antartica and central Africa, that are open to this kind of claim. This is where wars are going to happen, and this is where people are going to die because they unfortunately were born near some kind of stupid gold mine or something. This is what happens. It happened 100 years ago and 200 years ago, and it happened when the Spaniards came to the Incas and the Mayas. What is more interesting to me is how this inheritance repeats itself and becomes more and more refined. Because the more crime evolves, the more you have to be smart in disguising it as something else. We have to reinvent our own narratives over and over.
Have you been disappointed or heartened by the way your films have been received?
I’ve been very happy that I have a lot of smart people around me, and I’m happy to go on this tour in America, and I’m happy to interact with audiences. People are always asking me for solutions. I don’t know what solutions are, but I know that solutions are out there. We have to ask ourselves the right questions and then come up with lots more answers, you know? As a filmmaker, you can only give the platform for questions, and it’s a fantastic thing.
It’s like in any family, I guess, or relationship: You have these moments when you have to lay down what’s going on and examine it. I think we’re at a good point in history for doing that. The world can go one way or the other, but the problems are very abstract, you know? Global warming is very abstract. In our inner souls, we think, “ok, warming is not bad. It’s good to be warm,” so it doesn’t really kick in that it is actually a disaster. What I see is that people can work with metaphors and images and poetry. They are vital for us. We are overflowing with information, but it is a kind of information that doesn’t make us smarter. It makes us full of facts and figures but it doesn’t give us a clue about what to do. It’s not interesting to hear how many million people died in some natural disaster, because you cannot picture that. But it’s interesting to find the background of one of these survivors and show it in a film. Then you can kind of extract the rest from there.