In the resonant, multi-layered documentaries Hubert Sauper has shot in Africa—including his latest, We Come As Friends, which was shot over the course of a couple of tumultuous years in Sudanh, and which opens in NYC this weekend—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 us by phone earlier this month from his home in Paris.
You opened both the previous Darwin’s Nightmare and We Come As Friends 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 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. And the humor too. How kitsch it can get. It’s fascinating.
I think what you do in my situation is two things: you try to figure out and see and film what is, and then also try to make people understand what is not and the difference between what is and what is said, the discourse about the situation versus the situation and how we see it. You can see people dying and then people say “everything is under control.” There is a clear gap between what you hear and what you see, since everything is not under control.
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 rather than bring in talking heads. 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 ok?
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.
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.