Hubert Sauper’s Unknown Flight


In 2010, Hubert Sauper boarded a tiny, self-made aircraft at his home in France and piloted south, across the Mediterranean, to Africa. Over the course of two years, the plane (dubbed Sputnik) zigzagged across Tanzania and Sudan, where Sauper touched down and met, filmed, and interviewed local villagers, tribal elders, warlords-turned-politicians, and various interlopers in the region (American evangelist missionaries, Chinese oil drillers, UN peacekeepers, British ex-military members), on the eve of, and in the resulting years, of the South Sudanese vote to declare independence from Sudan.

The referendum, positioned as a solution in the 2005 peace agreement that concluded Sudan’s two-decade long civil war, promised the birth of a new, autonomous nation. Sauper’s resulting film, the Sundance and Berlin Film Festival award-winning We Come as Friends, is a skeptical witness to the initial hope surrounding this new birth, a devastating preamble to the country’s current, bloody conflict, and an unflinching critic of the recycled colonial ideology perpetrated by global powers siphoning resources from the region.  

Sauper was nominated for an Oscar for his 2004 film, Darwin’s Nightmare, an immersive, scathing account of how the introduction and commercial farming of the Nile perch, a nonindigenous fish, into Lake Victoria, had ravaged not just the lake’s natural ecosystem, but the entire economy of the region. In We Come as Friends, Sauper casts himself as an extraterrestrial “other” descending upon Sudan in a strange craft, as much embedded in the Western colonial adventurer narrative as in the language of sci-fi, and his camera work, at times hazy and surreal, recalls imagery of that genre. 

We met with Sauper in New York earlier this week to discuss the bleak case of contemporary colonialism, his relationship with the African continent, and redefining the documentary form.

COLLEEN KELSEY: After doing Darwin’s Nightmare, what brought you back to Africa?

HUBERT SAUPER: Well, I never really left Africa. [laughs] I understand much more about myself being European since I’ve been traveling a lot in Africa. Both continents have such a tight co-relationship, thousands of years of quite pathological dialectic, which is basically what I’m trying to describe. I’d like to describe worlds which are on, I’d say, the friction lines where worlds collide. Where Russians pilots collide with Tanzanian young women who try to make money [in Darwin’s Nightmare]. Or where money collides with poverty, or Christianity collides with another religion, where whole systems of thinking and cultures dash into each other.

Globalization is a global phenomenon of this. Certain areas in the world, like Antarctica, there’s almost no one there except for penguins. But the Pacific and Central Africa are two places where there’s big stakes, where the cards are not yet distributed between the empires, between the players. So who’s going to get the resources? Who’s going to be there? Who’s going to colonize? I’d like to study the human condition in these areas. The center of Africa has become my focus point for that, but not necessarily to make films about Africa. It’s more about the human condition.

KELSEY: Obviously the referendum for the division between Sudan and South Sudan was in progress for an extended amount of time. At what point did you decide that you wanted to go in and see the change in the country?

SAUPER: In the beginning, the whole idea of this film was very abstract. I didn’t know where I was going to really set it. I knew it was going to be in Africa. The first idea was to make a film so universal and so abstract that you never know where you are. You don’t know which tribe, which country, which language, but it’s too hard in nonfiction. People always say, “Here we are in Sudan,” and suddenly, you are in Sudan. You can do it in fiction easier, but not in nonfiction. So then I decided to look for a place where it is most transparent. It’s like this demon of the colonial mindset, this never dying monster, basically, like the monster of fascism or racism. Which is often correlated, by the way, because when the Arabic regimes crackdown on, let’s say, South Sudan, there is a big part of it that is a racist drive.

So I found Sudan. I knew, like we all know, that one of the most deadly legacies of colonialism was the division of Africa in fifty colonies, which became nations. We also know that these decisions were made at the Berlin Conference, mostly by people who had never been to Africa, except two, by the way. They said, “Let’s just give the Congo to the Belgians and the French will take the West,” or whatever. Suddenly, when the international community was gearing up [before the referendum]  it was a big consensus. “This is great, we should divide the Sudan, and then the conflicting parties will be in different countries and everyone’s going to be happy.” And they started redesigning an old colonial border, which, by lack of chance, or maybe not, coincidentally cuts through the oil fields. It was just a window into history for me. I could just see the fire coming. It was so obvious. It wasn’t obvious to most people, for some reason. And when I ended shooting, it was exactly at the beginning of the war.

KELSEY: What was the timespan of when you were filming?

SAUPER: Exactly two years. From 2010 to 2012.

KELSEY: Let’s talk about the construct that the film takes the shape of: this extraterrestrial experiencing the country through a sci-fi lens conceit. It’s an apt allegory for the idea of colonialism, but also how colonialism possesses the trappings of adventure from the European, Western point of view.

SAUPER: There’s two answers to that. One is that I am, if I want it or not, kind of an alien. I have kind of an odd life, I guess, which is a burden and a privilege. Mostly it’s a privilege. When I was studying the psychology of colonialism, before I started this film, I came to see that the whole popular culture of sci-fi was an outcome of the post-colonial mindset. Basically it was born when the war was over. World War II was over, the colonial era was over, and then suddenly we were reaching for the stars. The first thing we do is race for the moon and put down a flag, just like we did a couple years earlier in Sudan. The same gesture. The same thing. [laughs] The empires racing….

It’s funny that when you kind of gravitate around such ideas, a lot of things just fall in place and you go, “Oh yeah, I never thought about it.” But this is why we do what we do. We are all, like all of us in the world, conditioned by culture and we condition culture. That’s why obviously it’s a privilege to be able to use money from art funds and stuff to build a little plane and figure out something about the world. As you said, adventure itself is something very human. In thinking about adventure, I thought it was a very Western concept and it was precisely connected to colonialism, curiosity, and the idea to go to other worlds, exotic worlds, and discover them and try to, unfortunately, possess it. Woody Allen said about extraterrestrial life, “Extraterrestrial intelligence exists for sure, and the proof is that no one has ever contacted us.” [laughs]

KELSEY: The Western mindset is primed to possess resources in these places for their own betterment. In the film, you see that the local people that have a very astute understanding of what’s going on, for the most part, but do not have the agency, due to the institutional and governmental structures of their lives, to reverse it.

SAUPER: Even more puzzling to me is the reproduction of a narrative. How does a narrative even start, and how do we explain our crimes to a point where we completely turn it around and become saviors? How did the Spaniards kill a couple million Aztecs and Mayans and say, “We come as friends,” like we’re saving them? How do you make that? They obviously had the Catholic Church to help them, but…

KELSEY: It’s analogous to the missionaries from Texas who have a certain idea of what constitutes “godly” behavior or whatnot, having the village children cover themselves in Western clothes.

SAUPER: Also how do the people see this incursion? I was really wondering, because you arrive in a village in Sudan and it’s just burned down and bombed out, and kids are ripped into pieces, bodies everywhere, and you would immediately go, “Who the hell did that and who’s behind it and why?” A lot of people there would say, “This was very unfortunate,” like a storm came through the village, “and now we have to just move on.” They don’t always have the same kind of rational, not explanation, but rational desire to find the cause in order to fight the effect, so it won’t repeat again. So even there, the narrative is interesting. Not that people would agree to being victimized, but there’s a different kind of world which I haven’t really figured out yet.

KELSEY: Did you have a solid idea of where you wanted to touch down on your travels or was it very organic? Not just geographically, but in terms of the groups of people.

SAUPER: A lot of the things you see in the movie seem to be out of the blue, and I happened to be there with the camera, recording, [like] when they open the electric power station. But the truth is that I’ve seen hundreds of speeches by ambassadors in this context before, and I know, more or less, by heart what they’re going to say. I know how they think. I know their brains. Basically it’s a form of pre-conditioning. I knew it was going to come, I just had to be there and capture it. But then I didn’t know, in this golden moment for a filmmaker, in the middle of this speech, this tribal chief jumps up and runs around and brings confusion. It’s fantastic and also very devastating, because it’s like his last dance. The next round he’s going to dance for safari tours.

KELSEY: So you’re making a documentary but you’re also making a film, which is a work of art. How do you balance between creating a work of art and an informative document?

SAUPER: I think there is absolutely no contradiction. I mean, there’s this French word, it’s called, le documentaire de création which is, “the creative documentary,” and unfortunately, even in France, the most cinephile nation in the world, a lot of people still don’t understand the term. Documentary is an ugly word. It comes from protocol, document, proof, stamp, you know, it’s  an ugly thing. It comes from this patriarchal, colonial background, like, you want to go to some faraway place, document, and bring back the information to the powerful.

The misunderstanding is, documentaire means real places, real situations, real people. No bullshit. No actors or paid people or setting up stuff. Création is the form of it. There is no discrepancy. I can film this office here for a whole afternoon, and make it look the way I see it, as weird, but it is still the office. Truth has many faces and aspects. Some people have come up to me and said, “Thanks for showing us Africa the way it really is!” It’s like, what do you mean? [laughs] I can only say what I saw, right? But I don’t think there is a problem of balance. Some scenes look unreal, like dreams, because I see them the way I tried to translate in the film. It’s out of a sandstorm. It is a sandstorm. I didn’t have a ventilator on in Universal Studios. It was really in Sudan, I was really there, and this is it. Still, it looks quite mad. It’s at a moment in the film where maybe your brain is a bit loose from things you weren’t prepared to see. It becomes what art can, and should, do. It should enter your skin, or in some other part of your brain, rather than the factual, rational, statistical truth.