Filmmaker Hubert Sauper goes where other people don't go, sees what the crowd doesn't see and creates unsettling, provocative political documentaries that are unlike anyone else's.
In 2004 Sauper directed the Oscar-nominated "Darwin's Nightmare," which presented a shocking, unblinking picture of collapse caused by state-sanctioned predatory capitalism as it played out in the African nation of Tanzania.
With the pointedly titled "We Come as Friends," Sauper returned to Africa as writer, director and cinematographer and came back with a film that is audacious on so many fronts that Sundance created a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for Cinematic Bravery just for him.
This time Sauper uses the 2011 referendum that split Christian South Sudan off from Muslim Sudan as the starting point for a wide-ranging but very specific film that illuminates big issues such as globalization, colonialism and imperialism by going deeply into small, almost surreal moments.
It's more than the places Sauper goes that makes "We Come as Friends" so involving — it's how he gets there. The filmmaker spent two years building a tiny ultra-light airplane he calls Sputnik, which he and supporting cinematographer Barney Broomfield flew nearly 7,500 miles from France all across Africa.
So small that people repeatedly say it looks like a toy ("to fly this little thing," one observer says, "you have to be mad"), Sauper's plane invariably astounds and befuddles authorities, and that was of course the point.
"I wanted to be able to land on small fields in military-controlled areas where I never would have been able to go by invitation," Sauper explained in a Sundance interview, adding with a laugh: "The plane was our LSD. It let us literally be high. We were so high on our own craziness that we were able to penetrate crazy environments with our counter-craziness."
Once he is on the ground, Sauper does two things exceptionally well. First, just by his powers of observation and his gift for the unexpected vignette, Sauper gives us an immersive sense of what Africa is like close up.
"Its strangeness penetrates you, it enters your heart," he says in the film's unexpectedly poetic voice over. "From now on you're a complete stranger, you're an alien."
If the film shows us people in authority, like America's charge d'affaires in South Sudan, it's in slightly ridiculous situations, appearing at the inauguration of a power plant and attempting to make a serious speech as a trickster in a leopard-skin cape disrupts the proceedings.
Sauper also converses extensively with local residents, who have savvy and unexpected things to say. "Do you know the moon belongs to the white man?," one person casually remarks, while another, echoing the title of the film, says, "foreigners say, 'We come to help,' but they support gangsters. If a leader has vision, they say, 'He shall be killed in a plane crash.'"
Sauper's second gift is his ability to talk himself into places usually off-limits to documentarians. In "We Come as Friends" he befriends Chinese technicians who happily tour him through an enormous Chinese oil refinery, complete with a mosque for the workers, that turns out 300,000 barrels of oil per day.
Also appearing before the camera are villagers who live near the Chinese refinery and emotionally report the consequences of that proximity: "Everything that drinks our water dies."
The Chinese, as it turns out, are not the only people using Africa as a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which they can impose their beliefs. Sauper spends considerable time with Christian missionaries from Texas who come equipped with solar-powered talking Bibles and patronizing attitudes straight out of the 19th century.
Perhaps the most disconcerting vignette "We Come as Friends" offers is the story told by an inconsolable chief, who describes how he was fooled into signing away 600,000 hectares of tribal land for a payment of $25,000. "Behind the camera," Sauper said at Sundance, "your jaw is dropping."
Because Sauper views himself as a storyteller first, as political as "We Come as Friends" may be, it is always dramatic, never didactic. "The best thing you can do as an artist is to share passion," the filmmaker says, and he does that brilliantly.