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The Alchemy of Cinema


The documentarian on white savior narratives, making enemies of gunrunners and governments, and nonfiction film as art.

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Image by Jordi Belver.

Hubert Sauper swims against many currents at once. Thanks to his politically penetrating documentaries on Africa, he’s run afoul of national and local governments, development organizations, and other players with dubious intents and interests in the continent. At the same time, Sauper, a Paris-based Austrian, stands in contrast to the typical Western filmmaker in Africa. He brings minimal crew and equipment when embarking on projects. His portraits are profoundly critical, exposing deeper and more complicated human forces than one finds in conventional documentary narratives. He has an eye for juxtaposition, absurdity, and striking detail. His work mines paradoxes, at once allowing room for idiosyncrasy, dark humor, and a sense of tragedy, even as it probes the big questions that hum quietly behind reports by international media.

Sauper’s trips into central Africa over the past two decades have yielded three remarkable films: Kisangani Diary (1998), about Rwandan refugees discovered in the Congo; Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), an investigation into the foreign-powered fishing industry in northern Tanzania; and his latest, We Come As Friends (2015), an impressionistic mash-up of characters and conflicts surrounding the formation of the nation of South Sudan in 2011.

Sauper rose to prominence as an original voice in international nonfiction filmmaking with Darwin’s Nightmare, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. The film also made Sauper some formidable enemies, owing to its suggestion that European commercial interests were considerably involved in Africa’s ongoing wars. In one scene, giant cargo planes roar over a sleepy, barely developed landscape. Piloted by migratory Russians and Ukrainians, the planes have routinely spirited away tons upon tons of Nile perch, with much of the stock destined for the European market. But Sauper is not content with a one-sided argument: in various interviews throughout the film, he asks what the planes might be delivering on their way in—what they might be contributing, even as they appear to be robbing the country of needed resources.

Sauper’s interrogation of these kinds of transactions is just as dogged, if less straightforward, in We Come As Friends. In it, Sauper goes to new lengths—not just by building and piloting his own ultra-light aircraft to achieve greater mobility and freedom while shooting, but also through his audacity and the depth of what he manages to reveal while staying inbounds at a Chinese oil facility or the UN field office. The filmmaker has a remarkable ability to expose the humanity of his subjects, whether they be bumbling officials or the workers granting him access to some larger political or economic force.

While Sauper’s films never preach or propagandize, they are colored by a political sensibility that pervades everything, from process to content to where the camera is aimed and the way images are distilled to their most potent form. I spoke with Sauper over the phone—“I have to get my brain into gear, I had a long day,” he began our interview—about the experience of filming history in the making, free speech, his early exposure to acid-dropping Vietnam vets, and the everyday moments that in documentary become explosive.

Darrell Hartman for Guernica

Guernica: You spent six years making We Come As Friends. Was that the plan from the beginning?

Hubert Sauper: I didn’t know exactly how long, but I knew it was going to be a very long and difficult project. I’m privileged—enough people gave me money in advance for me to basically go for it. I made a little plane and flew to the Sudan. It was hard because I had been subjected to a hate campaign after Darwin’s Nightmare.

Guernica: Tell me about the fallout from that film.

Hubert Sauper: The film went against the interests of very powerful gunrunners and African governments. They sent out some very shady people in France to destroy my reputation and the reputation of the film—to try to say that it’s fiction. It’s based on fact. This was all in the wake of the Oscar [nomination] and the César Award [for Best First Film].

I was desperate. The people in my film got arrested. Their houses got destroyed. I had to get these people out of the country. There were lawsuits. I won all the lawsuits, but the whole ordeal took a long time.

Then I was unable to write a script and send it out to get money for We Come As Friends, because announcing the project would have endangered it. And I had to raise well over a million euros. So when I went to the government funding [organizations] and distributors, I said, “I’m going to tell you a story, but I’m not going to leave you a piece of paper.”

Guernica: And all this even before you set foot in South Sudan.

Hubert Sauper: Yeah. It was almost an undercover operation. You never know just how serious [it could be]. No one would have gone after me and shot me in Paris, but if I’d announced where I was going and when, I could have run into deep trouble in Africa before even starting to shoot the film.

It’s almost become a religion, this neoliberal way of thinking about progress, and globalism, and money.

Guernica: Logistical concerns aside, did all the troubles you had after Darwin’s Nightmare affect your mindset as you planned this film?

Hubert Sauper: It was like a very big disease that you survive [that makes you] much more conscious about your health. At one point, I was in a very bad state, both financially and psychologically. It was dark energy, basically. But ultimately, it made it clearer to me what I was doing. It gave me a lot of energy for this project because I knew I was going have an audience. I knew a lot of people were going to wait for me to break, people in this import-export, neocolonial—what to call it?—lobby. In a global sense, it’s almost become a religion, this neoliberal way of thinking about progress, and globalism, and money. If you scratch there, and if you have an audience, you become a danger to those interests. Now I know that I also have a lot of allies. I feel stronger and much more comfortable.

Guernica: Let’s step back for a moment. Tell me about where you grew up and how it shaped your worldview and your politics.

Hubert Sauper: I grew up in a place where the discrepancy between appearance and other hidden realities was very big. In Austria, near the Tyrolean and the Slovenian and Italian borders, in the middle of very high mountains—basically The Sound of Music setting. My parents ran a little mountain inn there. Also, it was the seventies when I was a kid, and it was one of these places so remote in Europe that the demons of the Third Reich are [still there]. The grownups around me were potentially serious Nazis. In the middle of all this beauty—the lakes, the glaciers—existed a shadow reality. Tourists would visit and say, “Oh my god, this beautiful old gentleman in Tyrolean dress!” And he could have been a gatekeeper at Auschwitz.

My dad was one of the only people in the region who spoke English. I don’t know how, but he became friends with a very high-ranking US Air Force general who was responsible for the air base in Frankfurt. This air base was a hub for the US during the Vietnam War. This general said that he had a problem, that all these crazed-out soldiers full of LSD were coming out of Vietnam, and asked my dad if he could send these dudes to our mountain hotel. So then one day at my parents’ hotel, the parking lot was full of these huge American cars. They drove down and basically took over the village. They were partying, and drinking, and I presume full of dope and LSD. Some tried to jump out of the window; others tried to rape the nurses they came with. But also they were these crazy, funny dudes. I kind of grew up in America, in a way.

Guernica: It sounds like an alien invasion. Which is, incidentally, a theme in Darwin’s Nightmare and even more so in We Come As Friends.

Hubert Sauper: I think you’re very right. Even the little hotel with my parents, when there was a crowd of loud German tourists, it was, in my view, an aggression. I don’t want to make a big theory about the whole thing, but this was my upbringing. I don’t think I was suffering from it; it was also fascinating. So maybe this explains my taste for the reality behind appearances.

Guernica: Many of your early films—notably Kisangani Diary—are about refugees. Can you explain where that interest came from?

Hubert Sauper: I am a bit of a refugee myself. I obviously couldn’t spend the rest of my life in this little Austrian town. I was doing a couple of films about gypsies—people moving, people on the run. I made a film about a circus director, On the Road with Emil (1993). I related to those people. Today, in every country in the world, we are cracking down on people on the move—the Maasai in Africa, for example—and they are being forced to stop living their lives. At the same time, we are chasing out hundreds of millions of people who want to stay around. It’s a double perversion. There are climate refugees, too. I think the future of humanity is being on the run, but not necessarily wanting to be.

Guernica: Meanwhile, in the West especially, we romanticize that idea of being a nomad—of traveling, of gangsters on the run, of being on a motorcycle.

Hubert Sauper: I guess in America it goes back to the settlers, right? Moving to the West.

Guernica: I think so. Building a better life, and also this idea that there is an infinite amount of space available.

Hubert Sauper: Colonialism is also that—they are referred to as “adventurers.” I read a definition of the word “adventure” once that was something like “going to unknown places, setting up camp, creating a kingdom, and procreating.”

Guernica: In some ways, Kisangani Diary is a contemporary version of Heart of Darkness. You were even in the same region of the Congo. But you’ve said you didn’t know that at the time, and only read the book after making the film. I’m curious to hear your general thoughts on how useful it is to have all these literary and cinematic references in your head, especially when it comes to colonial and neocolonial subjects?

I think most of my inspiration has come from life, not from film.

Hubert Sauper: That’s a tough question. I guess, compared to most people, I read not a lot, but very carefully and intensely. When I start liking a book, I’m almost studying the mind of the person who’s written it. I want to decode it. It’s the same with films. I guess it’s a dialectic: if you don’t read anything, you’re missing the scope, but if you are living through the experiences of other people, then you’re also missing out.

When I started making Kisangani Diary, I was not referring to anything or thinking about all the films made in Africa. I was just thinking about what I thought I had to make—and how to make it. The film had an extreme form, because it’s an expression of something very extreme. But yes, when I read Heart of Darkness, I read everything around it, and found out that Coppola was inspired by it to make Apocalypse Now. And then I saw that, and rediscovered feelings that I had had in the Congo. In Apocalypse Now, it’s a boat going into the jungle; in my film, it’s a train. But I think sometimes it gives you more freedom when you’re not stuck in references.

Guernica: Which films or filmmakers would you say have influenced you the most?

Hubert Sauper: I think most of my inspiration has come from life, not from film. But one I really love is Joris Ivens. He was from the old school, an amazing traveling filmmaker. His wife Marceline is still alive, very alive; she’s a fantastic old lady who survived Auschwitz. And Johan van der Keuken, also Dutch, is one of the most fantastic nonfiction filmmakers I know of. He died more than ten years ago.

Guernica: I see some parallels between you and Werner Herzog: both travelers, born in remote parts of the Germanic world, interested in colonial adventures, and pushing the formal boundaries of documentary.

Hubert Sauper: I love Werner. He was a visiting professor at my school [the University of Performing Arts in Vienna]—and he’s a good friend. We don’t have the same [views] about reality. I’m more interested in defending the idea of authentic nonfiction, and he says it’s all just cinema.

Guernica: It seems like there are more documentaries than ever being made now about contemporary Africa. Do you see this as a good thing?

Hubert Sauper: I don’t watch these very much because I get bored easily. Too many have the same tone. They’re actually very postcolonial. Basically: “I am from this sophisticated world, and I’m going to this chaos to show you guys back home in New York all these problems that these Africans have. And I will also, in the film, provide some solution, usually represented by someone from our culture.” To stretch a cliché, it would be a blond woman from Europe or the US taking children under her arms. She is us, of course, and she is there doing a good job. It’s not only boring, it actually angers me, because it doesn’t stir people up, it comforts the audience. In a political sense, it’s counterproductive.

My film is not [meant] to describe an injustice, or some kind of world that could be better, because if you do that, you’re claiming to know what “better” is.

Guernica: A lot of the documentaries that I see here in the US are attached to a social cause, or even allied with a nonprofit organization. I think they let a viewer feel productive, or at least involved, by donating.

Hubert Sauper: They’re basically an extension of this Judeo-Christian salvation nonsense [laughs]. It’s like Jesus comes and saves everyone. I went to Tanzania with my friend. You go to a village and, like with any other white person, the kids all run up to you to say hello, and you rub their heads. They look up at you as this figure from somewhere else, and you represent all these clichés that are implanted in our brains, our sick memory of colonialism: that we are hygienic, are wise, that we bring security—that we are something close to what we refer to as God. And we were doing just that. As two white dudes, that’s what you do [laughs].

Sometimes we saw footage of ourselves, and it was painful. How stupid it looks. How awful. Then I saw this movie about Jesus, where that cliché is pushed to the breaking point. Jesus comes to these villages, he’s this long-haired, hippie-like dude and everyone looks up to him. It’s exactly the same! And I don’t know if you remember, but I took a piece of this movie—where Jesus brings all the fish—for Darwin’s Nightmare, because this is the same narrative. But my film is not [meant] to describe an injustice, or some kind of world that could be better, because if you do that, you’re claiming to know what “better” is.

Guernica: I think of the moment in We Come As Friends where the American missionary is telling these assembled villagers that God wants them to “change your heart.” Can you talk more about this moment in the film and the larger themes it connects to?

Hubert Sauper: That scene was made in a place called Kapoeta. This is a small town in the east of South Sudan, which contains probably 90 percent of all the gold reserves of South Sudan. There is, under their feet, billions and billions of dollars in gold.

The missionary, of course, is not thinking of the gold, he is thinking of the word of God. He’s a nice dude, he’s not this evil opportunist—he’s part of the wheel. It’s the same thing with the opening of the electric power station, which is about two miles down the road. That power station was running at only 5 percent of its capacity. Why is it such a big power station? When you want to extract gold, you need electricity.

There are all these layers of background, but I didn’t want to overload the film with that, with information that would unveil something. I tried to focus more on the undercurrent of things, the mindset, and the narrative. How do we explain our world?

When we look at the news, one country is saying you shouldn’t use nuclear power and the other country is saying they want to. But do we even need nuclear power at all to survive on this planet? There are so many bigger questions, and yet we navigate in this little margin, thinking it’s really important to get this done.

Guernica: There’s a scene in Kisangani Diary where the French television crew is filming the remains of a massacre in the Congo. And the viewer is there, watching as this event is turned into a familiar and consumable piece of television media—watching that margin being narrowed, as it were.

Hubert Sauper: I wasn’t telling myself, “I’m going to make a film to unveil the undercurrents of media.” I was struck by this epiphany: What the fuck am I seeing? What is going on? Then I was trying basically to translate my frustrated brain into the film—my speechlessness, and fear, and all those things. Seemingly, it arrived in your heart, too. Sometimes I wonder how this dialectic between films and viewers emerges. My hope is that if you push boundaries further, push the language, then it strikes you.

Guernica: Do you find there is a different approach to documentary in America versus Europe?

Hubert Sauper: In America, a lot of documentaries are stuck because they don’t have public funding. Philanthropists give them money for films, and then, even though most filmmakers would insist they are free to do what they want, deep within they’re not. You can’t get funding from a billionaire and make a film that makes him not look good. I think public funding is something very vital to free speech.

There’s this mantra of free speech, which was important for everybody in France during Charlie Hebdo. But who has free speech in our times? Cartoonists, and maybe documentary filmmakers? Not many people. I still do what I want, or at least I think I do. I’m not remote-controlled by some undercurrent. I have money from governments who say they trust me because I’m an artist. I have an art form that’s called film, which I use to explore my thoughts. There’s a political motivation that drives me to make films, but I’m also very conscious of using the form, that I can push the limits of the form. I don’t have somebody telling me to fit it into some preconceived narrative.

It’s one of the last corners of free speech, documentary film. I prefer the word “nonfiction,” actually, because “document” has this ugly [connotation]: the proof, the stamp. The Nazis in France would call to people in the street and say, “Dokument!” It’s a word that goes into the bones of some French people, even today.

Guernica: So, to use your preferred terminology, how would you define the difference between a nonfiction film and a nonfiction film that is art?

Hubert Sauper: One is made by an artist and one is made by a reporter. In the Anglo-Saxon world, some people would say it’s pretentious to call yourself an artist. But I still do it, for a lot of reasons. It doesn’t have a pretentious tone at all in France. It’s like how if you practice law, you’re a lawyer.

Guernica: In We Come As Friends, there’s a sense that we are seeing beyond the surface of things. There’s the scene, for instance, in which a village elder comes to understand the implications of the contract he’s signed with the Dallas oil company. These are moments of huge but understated significance, which aren’t normally captured on film. Is there something particularly transparent about what’s going on in places like South Sudan? Or, without asking you to boast, is it all about the filmmaking?

Hubert Sauper: Both. It’s also the answer to your first question, about why I needed so many years to make the film. The city I am in now, New York, was bought by a Dutchman for nothing. It’s this recurring theme in human history. But I found this theme represented neither in documentaries nor fiction films. It’s such an amazing part of the colonial legacy. I could find it in a village, but I had to be in the flow, sensitized. I had to tune in to the frequency of finding these kinds of things. Like the genius-idiot in the white uniform on the side of the road, who asked me if I was so naïve that I didn’t even know that Europeans bring all the guns [to Africa].

These fantastic encounters are the outcome of years of basically throwing out nets. Maybe, for me, it is more transparent. Other people can go to Wall Street and find similar layers of the human condition there that I can’t, because if I were to go to Wall Street, everyone would know I’m an alien. But I can land in Africa and behave like a white man in Africa, with all its ups and downs, including getting myself into a [pilot’s] uniform to survive the military pressure.

Before you film something like this, you have to be totally aware of the abyss of this reality.

Guernica: What are you feeling while you’re filming scenes like these?

Hubert Sauper: I’m completely in the moment. But I carry this huge load of ideas that brought me to this point, a huge load of emotions. I mean, before you film something like this, you have to be totally aware of the abyss of this reality. You catch such things only because you’re ready in advance to catch them. Otherwise, basically, here’s an old man in the middle of the night exploring something that went kind of wrong.

So it means so much to me in those moments. You can’t really explain it, but when it happens, it’s absolutely magical. And why it can happen is also because of the camera, which is strange. The camera is usually the tool that defines the [power structure], but when the camera is so small, it becomes a link. It’s almost like this spark is coming through the camera into my soul and then, consequently, into the soul of viewers. And it means so much to the millions of people who see the movie, because in the context of the film, the moment has become something explosive. It’s a chemical thing, the alchemy of cinema. Add one thing to another thing and it goes poof!

G

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