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South Sudan Reaches Ceasefire, But Will Nascent State Survive Oil-Fueled Neocolonialism?

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After more than a month of violence that left thousands dead, rivals in South Sudan have reached a ceasefire agreement. The clashes began as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, but quickly escalated into ethnic clashes that raised fears of a civil war. We turn to a new documentary that shows how South Sudan has become ground zero for contemporary colonialism in Africa. Director Hubert Sauper’s “We Come as Friends” provides an aerial view of the conflict in Sudan from a shaky, handmade two-seater plane. The film depicts American investors, Chinese oilmen, U.N. officials and Christian missionaries struggling to shape Sudan according to their own visions, while simultaneously applauding the alleged “independence” of the world’s newest state. What emerges is a devastating critique of the consequences of cultural and economic imperialism. We speak with Sauper about the film, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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StoryAug 25, 2015As Peace Talks Collapse in South Sudan, Film Shows “Pathology of Colonialism” Tearing Apart Nation
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. In a major breakthrough in peace negotiations, South Sudan rivals have signed a ceasefire agreement that mandates all fighting end within 24 hours. The deal between South Sudan’s government and rebel forces was reached Thursday in Ethiopia after five weeks of violence that killed thousands and displaced more than half a million South Sudanese. Earlier efforts at negotiations reached an impasse over key disagreements, including the rebels’ demand for the freedom of 11 detainees and the withdrawal of Ugandan troops fighting alongside government forces.

The ceasefire is being hailed as the first step to ending the conflict, but both sides voiced caution and reiterated concerns over unmet demands. This is the chief negotiator for the South Sudanese government, Nhial Deng Nhial, followed by the lead negotiator for the rebel forces, General Taban Deng.

NHIAL DENG NHIAL: What in the world is asked, in terms of whether the agreement on the cessation of hostilities will stick or not, is the capacity of the rebel group. Given that the bulk of the rebel army is made up of civilians who are not subject to military discipline, orders to stop fighting may not be obeyed.

GEN. TABAN DENG GAI: We believe our comrades who are still languishing in jails are prisoners, prisoners of their political conscience. Therefore, we remain. We remain and demand their release to join the next stage of the comprehensive and inclusive national political dialogue. We deeply believe that their physical participation in the coming peace process is critical.

AMY GOODMAN: The most recent bout of fighting in South Sudan began last month as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, but quickly escalated into a full-blown conflict with reports of ethnic killings.

Well, here at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, a new documentary shows how South Sudan has become ground zero for contemporary colonialism in Africa. Director Hubert Sauper’s We Come as Friends provides an aerial view of the conflict in Sudan from a shaky, handmade two-seater plane. The film depicts American investors, Chinese oilmen, United Nations officials, and Christian missionaries struggling to shape Sudan according to their own visions, while simultaneously applauding the alleged “independence” of the world’s newest state. What emerges is a devastating critique of the consequences of cultural and economic imperialism.

In this clip from the film, we hear an English businessman address an investors’ conference in the capital Juba, followed by news reports about the newly formed nation of South Sudan.

ENGLISH BUSINESSMAN: I would hope that people would embrace is a philosophy that Native Americans have: “Nobody owns any of this; we just borrow it for our lifespan. And we should give it back in a better condition than we got it in.” If people view South Sudan in that way, then it will be right for the South Sudanese, and it will be right for the investors, because it’s completely win-win.

REPORTER 1: There are great concerns. You know, aerial bombardments near the border areas are going on, as well as in Darfur, in North Sudan.

REPORTER 2: The world’s newest nation is preparing for war. Thousands of soldiers already on the new border. This is over oil and land.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Hubert Sauper’s new documentary, We Come as Friends. It just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival.

For more, we’re joined by Hubert Sauper. His 2004 film, Darwin’s Nightmare, was nominated for an Academy Award. We Come as Friends will have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival next month.

Hubert Sauper, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. It’s a fascinating film. Can you relate the film to what’s happening today in South Sudan?



HUBERT SAUPER: Thanks for having me.

Yes, obviously, as a documentary filmmaker, you work for years. I worked for six years on this film, and I’m not a newscast person. But I finished making We Come as Friends in 2012. And the last episode of my film happened at the moment when the new-formed state, South Sudan, transgressed the new-formed border to its neighbor, North Sudan, and attacked an oil field, and the North Sudan, in exchange, bombed villages in the South Sudan, and there was a big fight over an oil field called Heglig, which you can see in the movie. And now, let’s say, two years on, the conflict has similar forms, but is called, let’s say, not a religious conflict, because when I shot the film two years ago, until then it was officially a conflict between Muslims and Christians fighting over oil, to simplify a very complicated story, of course, and now the Muslims are contained in another country, the North Sudan. Mr. Bashir is a war criminal and quite known in the world. I think he’s a known name for being not a very tender president. But now the South Sudan is no longer fighting between the religious lines, and suddenly it becomes ethnic lines. And suddenly, Nuer tribes were—fight against Dinka tribes, and two warlords who basically try to figure out who is going to strike the deals with oil companies. So, it’s the same thing. It’s a divided country, and at stake is the same thing again. It’s the oil and the water, for the Nile, and the gold, whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the larger forces at play.

HUBERT SAUPER: Well, We Come as Friends is a movie that depicts the pathology of colonialism, basically. And it’s very complicated and a hundreds-of-years-old or a thousand-of-years-old pathology. And—were you going to say—should I talk about the movie? Or is it—

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah. I mean, which is what—exactly what you do with the movie—


AMY GOODMAN: —is these larger forces at play.

HUBERT SAUPER: Right, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, let me play a clip from the film—


AMY GOODMAN: —talking about these larger forces. The U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, Barrie Walkley, speaking at the opening of a new power plant in Kapoeta near the Kenyan border. At one point, his address is interrupted by a protester.

BARRIE WALKLEY: On behalf of the people of the United States of America, I’m delighted to congratulate the organizers of this timely event. The Kapoeta power plant can today serve approximately 725 customers through 20 kilometers of completed electric lines and in the future will be able to serve up to 900 customers. [inaudible] Local community members provided much of the labor required to build this plant. Their sweat and dedication—

OFFICIAL: [translated] Get him out!

BARRIE WALKLEY: —the electricity and close [inaudible]. This morning [inaudible] there have been several references to light. During the opening prayers, Reverend father talked about light. The county commissioner, in his remarks, also spoke of the importance of light. The children sang songs of light. Those remarks, those references to light, were literally and figuratively appropriate, because today we are literally and figuratively bringing light.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, Barrie Walkley, speaking at the opening of a new power plant in Kapoeta near the Kenyan border, saying we literally and figuratively are bringing light. Hubert Sauper?

HUBERT SAUPER: Well, that is a very known old phrase. It’s basically—it came out of the mouth of this ambassador. I think he’s well-meaning, I’m sure. The movie is about the mindset of a problem, which is very, very old in human history. It’s outside forces coming to a place. In this case, it’s South Sudan. The very place where we just saw this opening of a power plant, making electricity for the locals, is the place where most of the gold resources of this new country are under the ground. Nobody really talks about it, but I think when you want to extract gold, you need a lot of electricity. And I presume there is a connection between this new power plant and the future gold exportation. Also, you also need a lot of fresh water for gold, and there’s also fresh water in this place in Kapoeta, whatever.

Just for me, it was amazing as a filmmaker to come to a place like South Sudan, to emerge into like a window of history, the window of history, because the major—one of the main consequences of colonialism is the division to rule—divide and rule. And most people know that Africa was cut into 50, or what, pieces a hundred years ago, and now it is basically—in 2011, the Sudan was cut in two more pieces. Everyone was basically applauding this new situation, because we have two new countries, and it’s going to be peace. But not many people talked about the new border, which is thousands of kilometers long. And on the borders in Africa, people die. And unfortunately, this new border between North and South Sudan cuts straight through the oil fields, which is the scene of the end of this movie, which we may not have time to see, but it’s a terrifying end. It’s a war in the oil fields.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go back to another clip, Hubert, of your film, We Come as Friends, a tribal leader in South Sudan coming to understand that he’s leased about 2,300 square miles of community land to a Dallas-based company called the Nile Trading and Development Corporation, or NTD. The contract’s explained to him by a group of political activists from Juba.

ACTIVIST 1: NTD has full rights to exploit all lands and natural resources in the leased land. This includes, one, right to develop, produce and exploit timber, forestry, resources on the leased land.

ACTIVIST 2: [translated] It is written that they will cut the trees on your land.

ACTIVIST 1: Three, right to engage in agricultural activities, the cultivation of biofuel crops and palm oil trees. Four, right to exploit, explore, develop, mine, produce and/or exploit petroleum, natural gas and other hydrocarbon resources for both local and export markets for 75,000 Sudanese pounds, equivalent to approximately U.S. $25,000.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from We Come as Friends. The amount of land that was sold, the 2,300 square miles, is approximately the equivalent of greater metropolitan Chicago. Hubert Sauper, how did this happen?

HUBERT SAUPER: You know, I cannot tell you how it happened. I can just tell you that it’s a fantastic thing as a filmmaker to experience—and say “fantastic” in a bit of a sarcastic meaning—to experience things from history which we know. One of the things in colonial history in Africa was that Mr. Stanley went for the Belgian king into the Congo and made tribal chiefs sign contracts to give up their land. And suddenly, as a filmmaker a hundred years later, we end up experiencing live and firsthand the same situation again. And it is literally—it is jaw-dropping as a filmmaker. I’m holding a very small camera, and I’m seeing things that happen which are historic, in a way, but symbolically historic. So, it’s an amazing, amazing experience as a filmmaker, and I’m transposing this experience into cinema, art, and now it’s shown at Sundance.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, I want to talk about how you spent this last six years making this film and the plane that you built to travel from France to Sudan. But first, another of the forces at play in We Come as Friends, depicted there, are the missionaries. Here, an evangelist from Oklahoma is preaching to a group of students in his missionary school in the small town of Kapoeta in South Sudan near the Kenyan border.

MISSIONARY: I want to tell you all that I am very proud of you. We need leaders who are young men and women of God, who trust in God and know that he will answer your prayers. When what I want is what God wants, that means when I pray, I’m praying just like Jesus prayed, so that you believe that whatever you pray for, God will do. But you know what the first requirement is for God to answer your prayers? First you must allow him to change your heart. Thy heart has to change.

AMY GOODMAN: The missionaries, Hubert Sauper?

HUBERT SAUPER: The missionaries. Well, you know, I worked for six years on We Come as Friends, and we met a lot of friends on the way. And we used a small home-built airplane, as you said, which we built with—the film crew built a small airplane, which is metaphorically a spaceship, and we are kind of aliens in this environment. And we meet aliens to us, also. And some of the “aliens” we met—I’m quoting, “aliens”—are Chinese oil workers in—who are living in a closed environment, who have air-conditioned containers, bulletproof dining rooms, and who are surrounded by local people who never speak to those Chinese people.

You know, some of the people we met were evangelists, as you just saw—showed, I think, in your clip. They have their ideas of the world, and they bring the word of Jesus, and they bring lights, and they bring hygiene and order. I think order is a very important thing. It’s a very, very important aspect of colonialism, is to bring order into chaos and to make people march in step and to make people wear uniforms. And that’s one of the things you need to do before you put children into uniforms is to—you give them T-shirts and to make them wear clothes. You know, people who are running around free and naked, you cannot—you cannot use as soldiers, for example, and so forth.

I think what the movie, We Come as Friends, is trying to describe is not a judgment to, let’s say, missionaries. You know, they are actually very sympathetic and good-meaning people. They took us in very nicely. And I was basically just documenting what the camera sees. It’s just—it’s a very casual thing that people bring the words of God and the Bible. And it is just the collection of all these things, let’s say. If you see it from the perspective of local people in South Sudan, there is Arabic—Arabs coming with the Qur’an, there’s Christians coming with the Bible, there’s Chinese coming with—to get oil. The U.N. is dropping food on poor people. The government of North Sudan are dropping bombs on the same people. And all of this, one of the reasons why I used an airplane to make this movie is that a lot of symbolisms kind of coincide in—

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about this plane that you built. I mean, it’s just astonishing.

HUBERT SAUPER: Yeah, sorry we don’t have time to be in the cockpit. But it’s—I was flying it with my great—with my—

AMY GOODMAN: What was the engine you used?

HUBERT SAUPER: Yeah, I was going to say the more important engine were my friends who came with me. Barney Broomfield is a young filmmaker from America. He is so talented. And he was learning how to fly over the war zone with me, and he knew already how to film. He made amazing shots. And I was filming, myself. We used this little airplane as a means of transport to go into places where we weren’t necessarily invited—Chinese oil fields or military camps. We literally and figuratively dropped from the sky. Sometimes we really dropped from the sky. Sometimes we just said we had to land because we didn’t have fuel anymore. And the people took us in, and we made friends with the locals or the military leaders. We had uniforms to not—basically, to get along better with the military. So we became, ourselves—we looked like idiots in uniforms.

AMY GOODMAN: You looked like pilots.

HUBERT SAUPER: We looked like—we were pilots, but we were pilots in a flying tin can. And we walked out as, you know, first officers and commanders. And then we were saluted by the military, and we were like linking up. And just to finish that, the airplane itself is a symbol of domination, of superiority of, let’s say, Europeans over Africa over the centuries. It’s a phallic machine. It’s white. It comes down onto the black continent. It’s an evil machine. It drops bombs. It’s a machine that’s connected to religious symbolisms. You know, the U.N. has these beautiful white birds who bring all these doctors and help. So, airplanes contain—an airplane contains within itself a number of symbolisms which are, of course, used in these kind of films and in this film, We Come as Friends, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s a remarkable film, and I hope we have another conversation when it opens in theaters. The film has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Hubert Sauper is the director. It’s called We Come as Friends. It has just premiered here and will have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival next month. His 2004 film, Darwin’s Nightmare, was nominated for an Academy Award. This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to Bahrain. Stay with us.

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