We Come As Friends is a horrifying look at the effects of foreign exploitation in South Sudan, a country that has finally achieved independence after years of conflict, but that is far from peace and stability. Hubert Sauper has accomplished an incredible feat: piecing together years of documentary footage, the result is a film that feels rough and raw while delivering an unflinchingly coherent message. It is an exposition of hypocrisy.
Sauper built his own plane, which allowed him to navigate from villages, to mines, to the United Nations compound. Before long, it’s difficult to decide which of the film’s subjects are more terrifying. Is it the Christian evangelicals, who built a fenced compound in a village without consent, and then forced naked, crying children to wear socks so as to keep them from sin? Or the Chinese, who have no contact at all with the local people, extracting oil and polluting ground water while living in an isolated bunker, as though they were on another planet? Or perhaps the worst of all are the corrupt government officials preaching peace and praising independence, while parceling off the country’s land and resources in the name of development. Never have diplomatic words and promises to help sounded so absurdly hollow.
A country just three years old, resource-rich South Sudan is war-torn, impoverished, desolate, as a small percentage of mostly foreign people are benefiting from its pillaging. Like a dystopian, apocalyptic story, the scenes pick up speed, and I can’t help but recall the Hollow Men as the film spirals into chaos. Except, We Come As Friends is perhaps all the more horrifying, because it’s real.
The film is difficult to watch, and will likely leave you with a barely recognizable heaviness that is some combination of frustration, disgust, and helplessness. It is, however, required watching for volunteers and aid workers with rosy ideas about “saving the world”; international development students who want to see their already depressing readings come to life; and anyone who has even a shred of romanticism about (neo-)colonialism.