From The Michael Slate Show:

Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Hubert Sauper

April 7, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Hubert Sauper's 2004 film, Darwin's Nightmare, was nominated for an Academy Award. In the following interview on The Michael Slate Show, which aired on KPFK Pacifica radio on March 14 and March 21, Sauper discusses his latest work, We Come As Friends.


Michael Slate: Why don't you give people a synopsis of the film itself.

Hubert Sauper: All right. That's a hard one. I've been working for six years on this film called We Come as Friends, and if you want me to resumé it into one or two lines, it's an attempt—I tried to condense a very complicated issue into a movie. Of course, it's my work as a filmmaker, and that is to try to figure out what is the pathology of colonialism. It's hard to explain in a quick way, but there's something kind of encrypted in our veins, almost, that we, say the Western culture, like we Europeans—I'm a European—have been overthrowing civilizations, killing millions of people in the world. And as we did, like, annihilate, as you say, annihilate civilizations over the centuries, in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia, we always had to come up with a narrative that kind of excuses us from doing this. And of course the narrative was supported by Christianity. We, the Europeans, we always had to come up with a way to explain to ourselves that we are actually good people while we are killing everyone else on the other side of the world.

Michael Slate: Pretty big job.

Hubert Sauper: It's a complicated thing. But because it's kind of a part of our civilization, it is very refined. If you want to stretch the argument, it's a bit of a stretched metaphor, but I can say, I think, on your radio station is when you imagine an individual who's a murderer, or is a pedophile, let's say a pedophile, and he goes home and he spends a lot of money to sponsor an orphanage. He insists to all his friends how much he loves children. So there is something so pathological in his behavior, or her behavior, and I think in the collective way our civilization suffers from the same schizophrenia.

And I think it's a fact, and I think it's something we have to kind of come to terms with, or fight against. But we can only fight against it if we are ready to see it as a problem. I think it's a collective problem.

So the movie We Come as Friends is basically a very straightforward documentary film, which is set in the South Sudan and in Sudan, at the very moment when Sudan, the biggest country of Africa, was split into two pieces. And that was a very crucial moment in history because the division of cultures and countries and nations was a crucial method, a crucial tool of colonialism. So the European colonialists came to Africa a bit over 100 years ago and cut it into 50 or something, 52 pieces called nations now. It's called divide and rule, basically. The more you divide, let's say intact kingdoms, the easier it is to rule those kingdoms. And sometimes the borders which have been made in colonial times were also actually containing tribes into one nation which were already at war, which is also a problem. And then it's also easier to rule this new-formed nation.

So the Sudan was basically the last episode of a long, long tradition of division of Africa. And the interesting thing is, of course, that while it is happening, the narrative which we got in America or in Europe or even China was that this country has to be split in two pieces because they are so different. The North is Arabic, the South is Christian. They don't get along. They should all have a separate country and then everyone is going to be happy and it's going to be peaceful.

Of course, it's not true that everyone was Christian in the South. It's also true a lot of Christians were in the North. It's clear that the problem between the North and the South was not religious. It was basically a problem that was created by powerful people who wanted the division, and who wanted the division to basically divide the wealth of the country, and mainly it is the oil in the Sudan. But at stake is also the water of the Nile. The Nile River flows straight from the south to North Sudan, and then on to Egypt. There's an unbelievable amount of gold and silver and uranium and you name it, and a lot of arable land. So, it's a very stretched thing to say, but in some way, the Sudan was split into two hemispheres, and I would say into a Chinese hemisphere and an American hemisphere. So China and America basically cut this country into two. This is, of course, a simplified way to say it, but there's something to it. And what was not said during this division of the Sudan, what was not mentioned, is that everyone was speaking about the new nation going to be born, and people are going to be happy and they're all the same. But no one really talked about the fact that there's a new border created, which is what? Some 2,000 miles long. And typically in Africa, borders are not a very safe place to be. So if you happen to live near that new border, you're potentially in very bad shape. There's a good chance your children are going to die from some kind of violent action.

Michael Slate: Part of this thing, even with the borders—as you're saying, they created these two hemispheres, the Chinese and the American. It's really interesting because there is this point that throughout Africa, it is true that the borders of African nations, they didn't match a lot of times, they didn't match—any way, shape, or form they didn't match anything to do with a lot of what the tribal areas were, and you have tribes split down the middle. They basically were lines that were drawn in the earth around whatever you can hold with a gun, whatever you can defend, the imperial powers, whatever you can defend, you can have. So it's true, these borders were very artificial in a sense, but then they also became battle lines and continue to be like that.

Trailer for We Come as Friends, Hubert Sauper's new film.

One of the things I wanted to ask—you've done a few other films, a couple of those films at least I know of are from Africa, Kisangani Diary and Darwin's Nightmare. And you can talk about that if you want. The question I was going to raise to you was, so this will be your third film on Africa. And is there a development? Is there a reason why you keep coming back to Africa, and is there a development and a progression to what you're doing with your films on Africa?

Hubert Sauper: One of the reasons why I'm interested in Africa is of course because I'm a European, and Europe has a very, very connected history with Africa. It is completely connected. For example, exactly a century ago, the First World War started, to the month almost, a century ago. And that war, the First World War, was basically a colonial war. The problem was that the German Empire at the time, the British Empire, the French Empire, and the Russian Empire, were coming to a point, after having developed very high industries, they came to a point that they kind of realized that they're going to need a lot of resources in the future, a lot of workforce, a lot of like slave workforce from abroad. And each empire was kind of imagining there's going to be a shortcoming for someone, right? So, of course, the trigger of the First World War was the killing of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but the mood that came up to it was a colonial dispute, basically—which is not really written in the history books very much. [Laughs.] And then, you know, 20-what years later, the Nazis was a consequence of it, so the colonial history and Europe is so interconnected.

By the way, one of the scenes in my film, We Come as Friends, takes place in a place called Fashoda, which was basically the epicenter of the collision of the two big empires in the late 1800s. In 1898, there was Britain and France when they clashed into each other, basically, in the small fishing village on the Nile. And that fishing village was on the crossroads between the two imperial axes. The British already had, like, colonized the north of Africa, the Nile, Egypt, and also the south, South Africa, together with the Dutch, the Boers. And they were obsessed by connecting those two points in Africa, so basically connecting the north to the south, the Nile to the Cape.

The French had a similar obsession. The French had colonized West Africa, most of all Senegal and surrounding countries. And they had military outposts in Djibouti on the Indian Ocean. So the French were obsessed to connect these two points and make a big imperial unity from east to west. And obviously the two interests would cross somewhere. And they figured out they were basically drawing two lines across the continent. And the two lines were meeting precisely in the South Sudan, on the Nile, in a little place called Fashoda. So the two, extremely, at the time, nationalistic nations, empires, extremely fascist, I would almost say, and extremely racist—they were driven by racism—those two nations were racing for Fashoda, like in 1968, the race for the moon between the Soviets and America, right? Same story. They were racing with a very big investment, with big armies across the continent of Africa. Both armies—the French went up the Congo with a steamboat. They dismantled the steamboat. Months and months, thousands of porters, of course slave porters from local people, were carrying the machines. Of course not the French: the French were even carried themselves by locals.

And the British were racing up the Nile from the south. The French were faster and they took this little town called Fashoda. The British came a few months later and were militarily superior, and they put up their flag also in Fashoda and it came to a crazy crisis, called the Fashoda Crisis, in 1898, where both empires were at the brink of a world war, which is 1898, 16 years before the actual world war.

So Britain and France almost went to war in Europe over the crisis at Fashoda. And the crisis kind of ended with the fact that the French gave up the Sudan. And this is the reason why in Sudan, people speak now English. This is why Kenya is English-speaking, and Tanzania. Basically the whole of East Africa is now English-speaking, because of Fashoda.

In exchange, the British said, well, that was nice of you to leave East Africa to us, and we will give you, to the French, in exchange, Morocco. So Morocco became a little cadeau, a little present, a French colony—to the detriment of the Germans, because the Germans also wanted Morocco. It's just crazy this whole story. And it ended up triggering the First World War.

Michael Slate: So understanding this is what's driven you to make these films?

Hubert Sauper: No. It's like, this is a story. The thing is that history is extremely complicated, and history is basically not what happened, but what is being told. This is history. What is the narrative? And I think it's important not only what is being told, but how it's being told. And documentary cinema is an amazingly effective tool to tell stories. Because you not only have information, you have as an audience the feeling to encounter people. If the film is made well, you kind of feel you're there, you are in front of these people. You get scared, you get intrigued, you're confused. I think, as a documentary filmmaker, it's, at least for me, I think it's very important to recreate passion that you live as a filmmaker. It's not that I go to Africa and then I come back and I'm going to tell you what the truth is, or what the facts are. The facts are being transported by CNN and the BBC. But still, of course, a documentary film is factual. People are real people. No one is an actor. People say what they really think is the truth.

Village, South Sudan, from the film We Come as Friends

But a lot of things in documentary films have to be read in the second and third degree. For example, if an officer of the UN shows you a plastic model of the future of the South Sudan, it looks like a little Disneyland or something. And he insists on and on and on how beautiful the future will be, and how great it will be. And the more he insists, of course, you as a spectator in the cinema would sit back and say, wait a minute, what is he trying to tell me, right? But I'm not going to be over-voicing this as a filmmaker. I'm not going to say, look, he's a liar or something. I just let people speak. And sometimes, you know, so to say, I give them enough rope so they can hang themselves with their arguments, which I think—of course, I have clear opinions as in some way also a political activist. But I think the efficiency of a documentary film like this is not what you see and hear, but what you feel and what you understand between the lines sometimes.

Michael Slate: I want to come back to that, because it's something I do want to explore a bit. But I have to ask you too, before we get too far into it and lose this—your perspective from the film is shaped in a very unique way, in a plane that I wouldn't sit in, even if it was on the ground. I was scared of it. Talk about how you made this film.

Hubert Sauper: When you start a documentary film project, it's really a big chunk of life. And one of the biggest questions you ask yourself is, what am I doing? Why am I doing this? And how am I doing this? And how is my access to the places and the people I want to film? So the normal procedure would be like you call people. You say, can I go film you? You apply. You call to authorities, you apply for visas, and you go through embassies. Let's say you want to shoot, as a documentary filmmaker, in a Chinese oil field in the middle of a war zone in central Africa. You may as well take like 15 years to get permission, right? And you may never get it.

So one way to find access is a certain form of anarchy. So we built actually a small flying machine [laughs], as you said, like a flying lawnmower, basically, which is named Sputnik. Sputnik's the Russian word for companion. And it's a tiny machine, but it actually has a very powerful engine and has very big wings. And big wings means that you can't fly very fast, but you won't die if you ditch it into a bush, and you can land on a little strip of field, a football field or a country road or something, which we did.

Then we went from France all the way down to North Africa, along the Nile to Sudan, and literally fell from the sky into military camps, into Chinese oil fields, into UN camps. And we were facing very amazing astonishment every time, of course—people were asking, "Where the hell do you come from?" And in some cases, we really had to land because we needed fuel and food and we needed to sleep somewhere. But sometimes we kind of used it as a Trojan Horse. We fell from the sky, and we said, look, we need your help. So we were taken in and we were treated nicely and we connected to people very easily, because this flying machine looks so ridiculously small and inoffensive that people took pity on us, too. So they said, you guys, it's good that you're still alive. Come and have dinner with us. And then some guys wanted to go for a ride, so we took them for a ride just to connect. Some people wanted to see their house from above, so we'd go for a little ride. And then in exchange they would tell us about their lives.

Above: Sputnik, the small flying machine that filmmaker Hubert Sauper and his friend built and then used to fly from France to Sudan and into the military camps, Chinese oil fields, and UN camps.

How this kind of filmmaking works is, I was in this tiny airplane with my great friend Barney Broomfield, and we were literally and figuratively high. This little airplane was our kind of LSD. We were in it, and we were so happy to be up, and we were so happy to have escaped from the military every time. And we experienced this extreme place and this extreme way of living—we were in extreme situations—in a very passionate way. And we had a lot of fun. We were laughing our asses off sometimes, just the way—how ridiculous we were ourselves in pilot shirts, how crazy everything got and how we just escaped in the last moment from another dangerous situation. And we were so passionate about the beauty of the people we met and how amazingly great their analyses are sometimes. Sometimes very poor people will tell you something so smart and so strikingly beautiful.

And we, Barney and I, we experienced that really as a team. It's like, did you just see what I saw? Or, did you see how beautiful this old woman just looked at us? Or something, whatever. And because we kind of shared this passion, we could also make these kinds of images passionately. And then it's in images, if you want it or not, it's like a magical thing. Then you as a viewer in the cinema, you get struck by that same lightning, if things go right.

We did something which was not in the movie, actually. We were constantly filming and editing our own trip, and we had a little projector that we projected the film that we had made so far on the white canvas of the plane. And so we kind of organized cinema evenings, sometimes where people would see themselves with what we just shot that afternoon. And kids would scream. There would be an amazing, amazing atmosphere.

So we were almost like a wandering circus, you know, a flying circus or something, you know. And that gave us a special position. People then after a few days knew we were the crazy guys with the little airplane and they came along—all these scenes actually we had shot and I had planned to include into the film, our trip and our mishaps, and our problems with the military, which were very, very often. The military, they don't usually like clowns with a little airplane looking from the sky with cameras. It's a menace. It's a threat.

Michael Slate: Which brings up the point about the military uniforms you were wearing.

Hubert Sauper: I'll say that in a second. But what I was going to say is like all these things that we the Westerners bring a nice little film to these people—I didn't want to include it in the film, because I didn't want to be one of these "good people" that bring food, the good white person who does all these nice things and makes change, and so I, myself, I'm a bit in the film. But more, I'm like a lost figure, a figure like somebody who's kind of overwhelmed by what he sees, which was also the case, you know.

So you see me in a few cases in the film, but not necessarily in the position of somebody who is superior or who brings biscuits for the children in Sudan.

But, as you said, the uniforms—in our flying tin can, we landed—I was held for a month in Libya, which was still then, was still Gaddafi's. I just was this traveling guy and I was wearing T-shirts and blue jeans. And later on, the same thing happened in Egypt. I was treated—honestly, I was treated like shit, because they said your permissions are not good enough. Your plane doesn't have the right insurance for our country, whatever. There's always something. I had to go to the ministry of defense in Egypt, which is a very awkward place to be as a flying clown. And so I was handed from one general to another, and they all wanted to check me out, and they thought I was Mossad [Israel's spy agency] or CIA. So I had to insist I was not CIA, and of course they didn't believe me, so they didn't want to let me go. And when they did let me go, I was like flying a couple hundred miles, and got to the next airstrip and they said you're grounded again, another week of delay.

So it was really, really hard. Until I kind of understood that when you deal with these uniformed people, you kind of have to become one of them. So we started wearing pilots' uniforms. I had four stripes on my shoulders. And I kind of mutated into a captain. Honestly. Which is in itself a very colonial thing, uniforms. So I kind of mutated into a colonial person. From then on the journey was much easier. And then we came to an airstrip, and then I didn't talk to little soldiers any more. I just asked, "Where is your commander?" The commander came up and saluted us and was very happy to greet us, and it was very formal suddenly. We, of course, we were laughing hard. It's just so ridiculous.

Michael Slate: I read somewhere that at least in the early stages of entering into this film you had recommended to some people that they read King Leopold's Ghost, to get some sense of what you were trying to do. Talk about that a little.

Hubert Sauper: Well, King Leopold's Ghost is one of the most beautiful books about the devastation of colonialism. It was written by a friend of mine, Adam Hochschild, who is an amazing scholar. Well, in the title, it already kind of emerges that it's not about King Leopold, which was the Belgian king who owned the Congo, which was like 20 times bigger than Belgium, or a hundred times bigger or something. He owned it. He had never been there. And why the title is so good, that it's King Leopold's Ghost, is because this is exactly what I said before. It's the pathology of wanting to dominate something you don't even know on the other side of the world, and to submit and subdue and slowly assimilate, and then militarize and exploit and kill.

King Leopold killed indirectly 10 million people. Ten million people. Which was by then, Adam Hochschild said it was about half the population of the Congo. And it happened in the dark. Because not many people had video cameras at the time. Nobody had little airplanes to look from the sky. Nobody had access to these places. It's a very, very sinister history. And the scary part of it is, this history is not over. It is not over.

One thing we shouldn't forget is when the Europeans colonized basically the whole planet, with guns and germs, and diseases they would carry—the smallpox and the flu—into the Americas, and Indians would die from I don't know what. So the diseases would always work in favor of the colonizers. Except in the center of Africa. The center of Africa, which means basically south of the Sudan, and east of Congo, is the very core of Africa. In that place, the diseases worked in favor of the locals. Because the colonizers, the Boers, the whites, would come, and they would die from malaria. The locals wouldn't. The cows of the British settlers would die from tsetse fly or I don't know what, and the cows of the locals would not die.

So the reason why east of the Congo and south of Sudan was not colonized has no other reason, I think, than diseases. It was just too wild for Europeans to get there. And now, with the big jumbo jets, with billions of dollars, and with air conditioned cabins of the UN camp, and with very high-end medical equipment, we can do it. It seems almost like the whole planet decides to crack down on the last people who are kind of still free from our way of living. And it's almost like we're obsessed by something under our skin. We have to kill off the last witnesses of human beings who remind us what we were once, maybe. I don't know what it is. There's something really, really perverse in it.

Michael Slate: You talk about the pathology of colonialism. How do you see that in relation to the existence of a worldwide imperialist system that enforces economic and social relations that are geared toward doing anything at all to get profit? That's the key motive. I traveled a lot through different parts of Africa over the last couple decades, and you could see. You see the things. Yes, you could step back and say, first impression, it's a pathology. But that pathology is rooted in something bigger. And that's what's always gotten me, is understanding that there was something much bigger that was determining, for instance, why in Namibia there was an extinction of the Herero people. There was genocide against the Herero people.

Hubert Sauper: Yes, the Germans.

Michael Slate: And it was all driven by this need for profit. Because if they don't do it, somebody else is going to come in and get it.

Topossa children, from We Come as Friends.

Hubert Sauper: It's a very difficult question. Why did the Germans go after these people in Namibia? Why? Was it only profit? Or was it some kind of collective brain damage or something? The Germans said, well, those guys are the others, or they called them the Negroes by then, in German, the negers, so they had to be hunted down. Maybe it's a psychosis. It's not only, I think, a drive for profit. It's a subconscious madness, I think, also. Also—not only, of course, but also. I don't know the story of Namibia well, but maybe these tribes were in a place where the Germans would have found gold or something. I don't know precisely where.

Michael Slate: You can look at Kenya. I remember a friend who was born in Kenya, and eventually had to leave. But he used to tell me about the British having "skeet shooting" contests, but they would shoot people. And the aristocrats, the landed gentry, would stand around and they would whip the Africans to force them to run into the field, and then they would shoot them like they were skeet. And when you think about that, it wasn't just this sickness they had, but there was a whole view, all the social relations, a whole view that they have of African people. It's rooted in and impacts this point about profit. But it's also rooted in there. Because they enslave people. They dehumanize them. And then anything they do to them, working them to death. Working them until they drop dead and then bringing a thousand more. It's rooted in something much bigger than just a screwed-up brain.

Hubert Sauper: It's really hard to tell. What I do know is that now, let's say a hundred years on, from that story you're just referring to, of course nobody on the planet really would say I want to shoot people in Africa. Most people would say we should help, save them, support them. But the scary thing is that as we say that we want to support them, we also destroy them. That is the scary part. Because what I saw very clearly in the East Congo and in the South Sudan, is that a lot of people were very, very capable of feeding themselves, very easily. They have gardens; they have cows; they have fruit. Until somebody comes along and says like, all the young guys who are strong, come with me, get a gun, we're going to go after the other tribe, because they want to claim the contracts for oil. And the guys who are fighting, they don't even know what oil is at that point. They don't even know how to shoot. They don't know how to wear a uniform. They just want to have a life. They just want to live.

But the guys who come, let's say the warlords, they know how to wear uniforms because they were growing up in missionary schools. And they developed over generations a very deep-rooted disgust for people who are not yet close to Jesus, or close to Allah, or whatever. I'm saying this because the Muslim colonialism is just the same. If you see it from the perspective of a central African village, if foreigners come, with the Bible or the Koran, it's like absolutely no difference for them. It's like, they're foreigners. They speak a language you don't understand. They wear clothes. They tell you what to do. They tell you, you have to march in step. They tell you, you have to sit quietly, you have to listen when somebody prays. All the spirits and all these beautiful things that you until now thought was a kind of religion is no longer valid. Now we have a different kind of god. It's one god, and so on and so forth. Only that is so violent, what I'm saying. This African elite, which is either indoctrinated by Mohammed or by Christ, whatever, want to do everything they can to assimilate the not-yet-assimilated people to god or Mohammed. So it's a very scary thing.

Michael Slate: You were just talking about the need to assimilate people. And when you think about what we've been talking about, forces coming in, colonial and now neocolonial forces, which is a little bit different from colonial forces because they set up these puppets that you're talking about, the elite in these various countries. And then it all seems like, "They do it to themselves. It's their own people that are screwing them up." When you look at it, you had some really amazing images and I'm going to talk about the way you did this a little later. But there were some images that you had in there, where you didn't have to tell a verbal story. Where you put your camera, as you said in the beginning of this interview, and you let people speak, and the things that were brought out there. There's some… I really want to talk about—the religion aspect of things, because that was so damn powerful. There were a lot of manifestations of it, but one that really stood out for me, it was like—you heard that saying, I think, that when the colonizers first came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. And real fast, it turned around and they had the land and we had the Bible.

Hubert Sauper: The woman you're referring to is a South Sudanese person. Her name is Celestine. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee. She had to run away from civil war 16 years ago or 17 years ago, and ran with six children. Now they're growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. By the time I shot the movie We Come as Friends in South Sudan, she also had just come back to South Sudan. She kind of found me in a cafe. I was really tired and she said, "Do you coffee? Do you need to talk?" basically. And then she told me her story and I was recording it, and then she said what you were just referring to.

Michael Slate: The other aspect of this, and again, this is another place where you put this in your film, and it concentrated some of that thing about "they had the Bible and we had the land, now they have the land and we have the Bible."

Hubert Sauper: Yeah. She says the British came with the Bible in one hand and the gun in the other hand and took all our resources.

Michael Slate: Exactly. And then you have this scene, modern day. You have this scene where this guy, this missionary I imagine it is, he's sitting there with his family, and they live behind a cyclone fence enclosure. And the people are going, "But this is where we used to go! This is where our goats eat." And the guy looked at them and with the most arrogant and enraging face, went, "Not any more." And that was something I thought you really captured well.

Hubert Sauper: That's of course a psychological problem that Europeans and Americans have. It's the idea that we're entitled to all the richness we have. We're entitled. It's an emotion of entitlement. So you go to Africa. You go to a place you've never been in your life, and you feel like you're entitled to have a nice big house, on the nicest spot, with a good view, with access to water, and that's it. Because why not? Because I'm the white guy, so why should I not have it?

So that is our pathological view of things. I don't think we're necessarily entitled to metaphorically suck the blood out of Africa. If you think of some of the scenes in We Come as Friends, there's this famous railroad that was made by the British to push into the center of the Sudan to overthrow the Mahdist Regime by then. Because once you had a train, you could bring soldiers on land, and material. But of course the railroad wasn't only built to bring the soldiers into the continent, but to bring out all the resources. In that case the British were taking out coltan from the Sudan and agricultural goods, and now actually this train is running for the Chinese, and actually as you see it in the movie, which is not explained in the movie, but it's bringing oil out of the Sudan, to Port Sudan and then on to China.

So if you look at the map of Africa, Africa was colonized, of course, on the coasts. On the south and the east were the British. Then the Portuguese and the French in the west. And it was also colonized from Muslim countries in East Africa. And very slowly only, the colonizers would push into the center of Africa. And one of the things, which is like now 120 years back, was to push railroads into the center of Africa. Of course, the idea, or the pretext, was, say, we'll make a railroad from the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria, which is in the center of Africa, to bring the word of god, to bring all these beautiful goods we have, to bring civilization, to bring doctors—to bring civilization, and to bring light. That's what they said. By the way, many flags in Africa, you find a star in it. The star is always what represents the light into the darkness. And these railroads, which were like needles into the continent, were actually not made to bring all these things. They were made to suck out all the resources. And that's as simple as that. It's really metaphorically, it's really like a needle that penetrates your arm and sucks your blood out.

So it's a metaphor. But there is the core of the problem. The core of the problem is, what is the narrative? What do you explain, right? And the narrative is our narrative. It's the Western narrative. We are explaining history, and not the Maasais. The Maasais, actually, by the way, when the first train was built into East Africa, it was referred to as the "lunatic express." It was built by Indian workers, from India, brought by the British because they were a specialized workforce. A lot of them died as they were building this railroad. And this train that was going into the East African beautiful landscape, the Serengeti and this amazing landscape, was referred to as the "Iron Serpent," or something, or the "Iron Dragon," or something really menacing and threatening for the locals, for the Maasai. I think it was called the "Serpent," or maybe the "Serpent of Steel." It was something really scary for the people there. Those were the steam machines that came in. The same in America, right? In America it happened even longer before. Actually not so much before.

Michael Slate: But the thing, too, even when you're talking about this and the railroads. I know the Portuguese were big on this, too. And when you look at what happened in Africa, and especially in the 1970s, when China was a revolutionary country, a socialist country, and they started to actually change the railroads, the way they built the TanZam Railway, which would for the first time give countries closer to the center of Africa a route to get to the seacoast, so they could actually bring their products out. But in all the colonial countries, in all the neocolonial powers, all of it was, the railroad all ran east to west and west to east. They all ran that way. They didn't go and feed the people who were living throughout in all the other areas north and south.

Hubert Sauper: No, they were going to the ports.

Michael Slate: Exactly. One of the things I wanted to ask you, continuing this thing about the images. You have a couple of images. You spoke to the one about the Chinese, and China being a capitalist country which everyone can see, in terms of the bloodthirsty pillaging of the world. And you have a tremendous image in there where these guys, these Chinese oil workers, I guess, are in this  . And no comment. You just have them, they're playing pool and they're drinking and they're air-conditioned. And you've just come, you've brought your camera from outside in, and you see all the devastation people are living in outside, and then you see these guys there in a bulletproof [bunker]. And there's so much concentrated in that image. And I wanted to ask you again about the power of image in your work. Because without saying anything, you continually bring people in.

Hubert Sauper: Well, before you can create a movie like this, you kind of have to experience these contrasts in a very passionate way. I'm here at the Sundance Film Festival, and I could—I can actually. I can represent the Sundance Film Festival also in a very passionate way. With all its contradictions. Like we're in a hotel now, and in front of the hotel there's this big flame, like burning into the sky, I don't know for what. And it's contributing to global warming or something. You can see contradictions everywhere. And of course in central Africa, contradictions are so great, and so amazing. And once you live it and kind of feel it, it's very easy to represent it as a filmmaker. And of course, what you refer to is cinema art, it's montage. It's like, what image do you cut after the other, you know. Sometimes it's very simple. And sometimes it's like alchemy. It's like a cocktail that kind of blows your mind. It's like a good poem, like one word, and then another word, another word, and suddenly it strikes your heart. It's just three words. And you don't know what it is. It is what it is. It's art.

And the same way with images, right? Filmmaking is a very long process. It's a very, very long process. I just spent like, two years nothing but editing this film. But full on. I'm not doing any job next to it. I'm not seeing many people. I'm just working like a crazy man for two years. And every edit you see, every image you see after the next, is the outcome of hundreds of hours of images that could also have come just after that, whatever, pool table. So it's really a crazy process, you know.

Michael Slate: Why do you think it has that power, the images that you've chosen? It's interesting because we're watching it, and we can see and it impacts us the way you want it to impact us, actually. But it's very interesting because we're not aware of the fact that you had hundreds of images before and after, and you spent two years painstakingly working on those to create this. What do you look for that actually gives so much power to an image?

Hubert Sauper: It's very hard to explain what it is. It is a complicated and enigmatic process, making films. Or like composing music also, or making good radio shows, the same thing.

Michael Slate: It's a little easier. [Laughing.]

Hubert Sauper: You choose out of a hundred filmmakers who are you going to talk to? You create the right environment. You sit down. The energy you kind of send out to sit with me and talk to me is what you hear on the radio. People cannot see you, but I can see you. And my voice is your face. Same thing as a filmmaker. You are part of reality and you play with a lot of these energies, basically. You create, in a way, being in a room with somebody, whoever it is, it's a president of a country or a street child in Africa or a UN humanitarian worker. You create some kind of atmosphere. You create an atmosphere of trust or of curiosity. A lot of times it's curiosity. People are intrigued. Who are those guys with these little cameras and this little airplane. And we were intrigued in their environment. So a lot of what you see in the film is the reflection of astonishment and passionate kind of experience. Honestly, a lot of scenes in this film especially, more than other films, I was really shooting as a first-hand experience.

So things that happen in front of the camera are things that I had never seen before, I would never have expected would happen. Sometimes small things—this woman who sings the song "My Land." You could play it on the radio if you want. Sometimes I wake up in the morning in this straw hut in a village and I hear screaming people. They're screaming and I think something terrifying had happened. They were basically preparing a funeral for someone who had been shot that very night. And it becomes a scene and I'm just filming the scene, and as I film it, I'm with an open mouth behind the camera and I go, "What the hell is happening? This is crazy," what I'm just seeing. But I still am conscious that I'm a filmmaker and I have to make sure it's on focus and the camera at least has battery in it and it's running at least. Sometimes it's shaky because you can feel it. Like I was totally not prepared to film it, and five minutes before I was fast asleep, five meters away. So all these things, I think they transcend, you can feel it in the audience, you know.

That's a magical thing. I think you can even feel when the camera shakes at a certain time, that it kind of shakes your soul sometimes.

Michael Slate: You've taken us through this progression of images and contradictions and all these other things. And when you talk about that scene of the shooting and what not, after somebody'd been killed, I remember it was just like you're there. That's the point, is that you're sitting in this whole thing. You're just sitting in this whole—this collage has actually ended up being this point where you're in the middle of this terrible, terrible predicament, this situation, and not just the immediate thing around the shooting, but then again, in a weird way you also kind of step back because you the audience is actually able to step back a little bit and you're able to say, wait a minute and tie it together with bigger things. Because very closely related to that is the stuff that you had referred to earlier, about the do-good, entrepreneurial, we're here to help the African people get a better life. And it ends up being the people with the electric company, the people swindling the people out of the land, and Hillary Clinton. Let's talk about that a little.

Hubert Sauper: Well, actually, it's a funny thing you said, that different people can have different shortcuts in their brains. And one of the things, when we came to this very, very remote place, near Kapoeta, where people are living a very, very traditional way. The USAID is opening a power plant, and insisting that electricity is really what those barefoot people need. And I thought honestly they did not need electricity. What they needed was to have a quiet life, to be able to live in peace, not have trucks running up and down, not have somebody taking their land away, whatever. But when the ambassador was insisting so many times, "We're bringing light," you know, this metaphor which is very colonial by the way, suddenly it struck me, electricity, you can make electric chairs. You can kill people. And of course nobody talks about electric chairs. But of course, electric chairs are going to be eventually installed in these places and people are going to be electrocuted with electricity, or else you couldn't have killed them. Anyway, you were talking about Hillary Clinton.

Michael Slate: She had a classic statement in the film, right?

Hubert Sauper: She said some amazing things, you know, which I found from TV. A TV was running in this cafe. I kind of knew the show was on and Hillary Clinton—actually it was a TV that ran in loops. So I saw it and I kind of waited until it's coming back. What did she say? She said that "We don't want a new colonialism in Africa." Basically, without saying it, referring to the Chinese. Of course, she didn't say we want the Chinese out or something. But I remember when this show was on, there was quite some press on the Internet—that's how actually I also probably found it—that the Chinese were protesting against what she said. Like they didn't want to be the colonialists.

But I think she also said when people come to Africa, and I think people she's referring to are investors, not people like you and I. The people she was referring to are people who come to invest. "When people come to Africa, we want them to do well, but also we want them to do good." So that contains a craziness within itself.

Michael Slate: Especially because she said, you can make a lot of profit in Africa.

Hubert Sauper: Well, I think someone else said that. This other person who said this was probably referring to what he heard of Hillary Clinton. It's kind of a parrot effect. Somebody says something which is close to mad, and then everyone repeats it and suddenly it becomes accepted and fine to say, right?

Michael Slate: The sentence I remember is the thing, because we were talking about it earlier this morning, the thing about her saying that she sees Africa as the bread basket of the world. And of course she hopes that Africans will benefit from this. And meanwhile, if you have any connection with the world today, you're thinking about the fact that so many millions of African people and African children die of starvation every year, that the famines that happen all the time—and I had seen a famine in Ethiopia and saw people pecking at the ground, and their skin's so stretched over their bones they look like chickens, and they're pecking at the ground trying to get rice. You could see the kind of interplay there, like then it was the Soviets and the U.S.

Hubert Sauper: While there was famine in the Sudan a few years back when the biggest operation I think in the history of humanitarian operations called Lifeline Sudan, at the very moment when this happens, the Sudan itself exported food, exported sugar to Saudi Arabia for currency. And the Sudanese government needed the currency to buy Mercedes Benzes and airplanes and air-conditioned offices and go shopping in London. That's a fact. Ethiopia is quite an extreme example too. Ethiopia is exporting food. Ethiopia is now producing, I think, a lot of biofuel also. Also, at the same time, in Ethiopia, people are still very, very poor. But also, a lot of people are very rich now in Ethiopia. And there's something we shouldn't forget.

It's that, like, what we refer to as just north-south, let's say polarity of richness and poor people, it doesn't really match anymore. It's like the First World has its outposts everywhere in the world now. So in every poor country in the world, you can go to a Hilton Hotel, check in, pay $300 a night, have a massage and sushi at night. In the poorest countries of the world. So within these poor places, there are islands of extreme wealth. And the other way around. Within, let's say what we refer to as rich countries—I live in Paris, and down in my street, people sleep in the streets, in the Gare du Nord. People freeze to death in the winter. It's cold in my neighborhood, in Paris. And so on and so forth. So the Third World, what is referred as Third World and First World, is no longer necessarily a geographic notion.

Michael Slate: There's a point to the fact that a lot of the things that exist—there's a connection between what goes on in the imperialist countries and those islands of extreme wealth in the oppressed countries, oppressed nations. Because oftentimes, what that's concentrated on is, one, to enable the people from the imperialist countries to come in and set up their shop there, to base themselves there. But it also serves the ruling class in that other country that can then rule over the vast majority. And the thing is, in both cases that you mention, whether it's France or the U.S. and the gigantic amounts of wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, and then the massive suffering of so many—same thing multiplied over and over again in these various so-called Third World countries.

One thing I wanted to bring up because it gets back again to this pathology or system, because, in Ethiopia, one of the things that happened in Ethiopia during the famine, was that they had—Ethiopia once had the hardiest strain of wheat you could find anywhere in the world. And the U.S. came in and they engaged in a lot of genetic engineering. They said we're going to make it even stronger. It'll be able to withstand all this stuff. So they did that. They screwed around with all the Ethiopian wheat. And then, when they developed this strain of wheat, they took all the seeds and they put it in the seed bank in Rome. So the Ethiopians were left with two things.

Hubert Sauper: To buy it.

Michael Slate: But they couldn't buy it because they couldn't afford it. So what happened is they were left there. They no longer had any wheat. It was all dying off. Why? Because of desertification, tied indirectly to the impoverishment due to imperialism. So you had this whole interlocking and downpressing thing that was constantly in operation. And that's one of the things that I get, and it comes back to this power of image, because as you presented all this, you concentrated a lot of that history, but also the present-day reality for people. It was very heavy, when you would go from the Europeans and the Americans and what they're living in, and the Chinese. And then you would show the garbage pits that people were living in, or that one scene about, this is where we bury our dead. We're not supposed to live here. But that dichotomy, those two opposing things.

Hubert Sauper: Dialectic, yeah?

Michael Slate: Yeah, yeah.

Hubert Sauper: I have to say one thing. It is in a way very easy to juxtaposition misery and wealth. It's actually very easy. You take a camera and you film a trash can, and then you film somebody on a very beautiful dining table, you cut it together and it's a contrast and people are scandalized about it. I was not pushing that button the way I could have. I filmed a lot of things. I filmed children eating rotten noodles out of a trash can which was just behind the UN camp, with worms, and it was so scary, it was so terrifying. But I did not put it in the movie. Because it would have kind of diverted the argument of the movie. It's almost like porn. It's like what do you want to show? What do you want to do? And it's like, on itself would have taken away the attention of the viewer of the more subtle and more important narrative of my film.

I didn't film in hospitals, or lepers, or I didn't film burnt corpses, which I saw, of course. If you spend so much time in a place, in war, you see very terrifying things. But I didn't film it. The only thing I did was I took some footage from a soldier because I thought it was very important to kind of make a point that there is actually war. It's not like just on the radio. And then I cut to a swimming pool, which is the very day when I shot that swimming pool. Nobody knows that, and it doesn't really matter. But it matters to me because I remember it was the very moment when the war in this oilfield called Heglig—it was I think the last days of March 2012. And that very day I was trying to find one of the ministers in South Sudan. And I couldn't find him because he was in some reunion. The cabinet had agreed to start that war and to transgress the border to North Sudan, and many thousands of people died, and eventually nobody talked about it anymore because actually it was—the army had to pull back and it was—no one talked about it anymore, suddenly like two weeks later.

I know at this very moment of the attack, this burning oilfield and these dead bodies were filmed live by the soldiers. This happened synchronized with the moment that I was in the swimming pool, in the capital of Juba, filming investors having a cocktail. Including myself. I was in the same swimming pool. And I actually jumped in that swimming pool, and I was just like one of them, you know. I was not in the war zone. And nobody shot me, so I was here to talk to you now. But this is the crazy irony of these realities, you know? In a documentary film you can represent them in a way that gives you kind of an electric shock as a viewer, too. Which is fantastic. I'm happy it works.

Michael Slate:  One last question. Nina Simone's song, "Wild is the Wind." Why did you decide to use it in this film?

Hubert Sauper: Well, why not? I read today in the New York Times—they wrote about my film. Did you read that? It's funny that you ask this question, because there's a very good article about We Come as Friends, in the New York Times, yesterday, I think, and there's a line saying, why did the filmmaker use this American jazz in the Sudan or something? That's kind of a misstep, you know. And it's funny. It made me laugh. Because the whole concept of this kind of documentary film is you kind of make an agreement with the audience. The agreement is, what you see is real. How it is presented is very formulated. It's a form of documentary film, and it's very extreme. So a lot of things you see have to be—you as an audience have to be very strongly engaged intellectually, and you have to be able to read a lot of things in a second and third and fourth degree. So why did I use Nina Simone? It wasn't Nina Simone singing. It was a friend of mine called Malia, who's a beautiful singer. She's from Mali. Called Malia and she's from Mali. She has the voice of an angel and I knew her and I was asking her to record two songs for me, for the film. One is "Wild is the Wind," and one is "Tomorrow Is My Turn," which is at the end of the film.

By the way, I gave her a picture of the little boy at the beginning of the film, and I said, you're going to sing for this little boy in the studio. And she sang it for him, which gave her I think some extra energy. But the choice of why am I using jazz music there? I can't tell you. It's because I think it has to be. It could not not be. It wouldn't be my film if it weren't.

Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.