World

Can South Sudan Survive Oil-Fueled Neocolonialism?

A documentary film reveals how South Sudan, the world's newest state, has become ground zero for contemporary colonialism in Africa.

This transcript is taken from Democracy Now!'s January 24, 2014 broadcast.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. In a major breakthrough in peace negotiations, South Sudan rivals have signed a cease-fire agreement that mandates all fighting and 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 cease-fire 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 opposition 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 the release [INDISCERNIBLE] 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 and 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 is completely win-win.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: There are great concerns, you know, aerial bombardments near the border areas are going on as well as in Darfur, in North Sudan.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: The worlds newest nation is preparing for war. Thousands of soldiers already on the new border. This is over oil and land.

AMY GOODMAN: That is 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 Night," was nominated for an Academy Award. "We Come as Friends" will have its premier 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 is happening today in South Sudan?

HUBERT SAUPER: Hi, Amy, thanks for having me. Yes, obviously, as a documentary filmmaker, you work for years. I worked for six years on this film. I’m not a newscast person. But, I finished making "We Come as Friends" in 2012. 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 South Sudan and there was a big fight over an oilfield 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. 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. Suddenly, newer tribes were fight against Dinka tribes and the two warlords who basically tryi 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 an island, the gold, whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the larger forces at play.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Which is what — exactly what you do with the movie, is these larger forces at play. In fact, let me play a clip from the film 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 20km of completed electric lines. In the future it will be able to serve many other people —

PROTESTER: [RINGING BELLS] [SHOUTING]

BARRIE WALKLEY: Local community members provided much of the labor required to build these plants with their sweat and dedication —

PROTESTER:[SHOUTING]

OFFICIAL: [TRANSLATED] Get him out!

BARRIE WALKLEY: — the electricity and close [INDISCERNIBLE] there have been several references to light. During the opening prayer Reverend Father talks 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 near the 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 is well-meaning, I’m sure. The movie is about the mindset of a problem, which is very, very old in human history, is outside forces come into play. In this case, it is South Sudan, the very place where we just saw the 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. I presume there is a connection between this new power plant in the future gold exportation. Also, you also need a lot of fresh water for gold, and there’s also freshwater in this place in Kapoeta, whatever. 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 one of the main consequences of colonialism is the division to rule. Divide and rule. Most people know that Africa was cut into 50 pieces 100 years ago, and now it is basically in 2011, Sudan was cut in two more pieces. Everyone was basically applauding this new situation because we have two new countries and it is going to be peaceful. Not many people talked about the new border, which is thousands of kilometers long. And on the borders of Africa, people die. 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 may not have time to see, but it is a terrifying end. It’s a war in the oil fields.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to another clip of your film, "We Come as Friends." A tribal leader in South Sudan coming to understand that he has least about 2300 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: 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: [TRANSLATED] It is written that they will cut the trees on your land.

ACTIVIST: Rights 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 hydro-carbon resources for both local and export markets for 75,000 Sudanese pounds, equivalent of approximately U.S. dollars 25,000.

AMY GOODMAN: That is a clip from "We Come as Friends." The amount of land that was sold, the 2300 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 it is a fantastic thing as a filmmaker to experience — I 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, 100 years later, we end up experiencing life firsthand the same situation again. It is literally, it is jaw-dropping as a film maker. I’m holding a very small camera and I’m seeing things that happen which are historic in a way, but symbolically historic. It is an amazing, amazing experience as a film maker and I’m transposing this experience into cinema, art and now it is 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 that 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? Fist you must allow him to change your heart. My heart has to change.

AMY GOODMAN: The missionaries, Hubert Sauper?

HUBERT SAUPER: The missionaries. Well, I worked for six years on "We Come as Friends" and we made a lot of friends on the way. We used a small home-built airplane, as you said, which we built — the film crew built a small airplane — which is metaphorically a space ship, and we are kind of aliens in this environment. We meet aliens to us also. Some of the aliens we met — I’m quoting "aliens" — are Chinese oil workers 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. Some of the people we met were evangelists, as you just saw — showed in your clip. They have their ideas of the world and they bring the word of Jesus and they bring light and they bring hygiene and order — I think order is a very important thing. It is a very, very important aspect of colonialism is to bring order into chaos and make people march in step and make people wear uniforms. And that’s one of the things you need to do before you put children into uniforms is you give them T-shirts and make them wear clothes. People who are running around free and naked, 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. They are actually very sympathetic and good meaning people. They took us in very nicely. I was basically just documenting what the camera sees. It is a very casual thing that people bring the word of God and the Bible. It is just the collection of all these things. If you see it from the perspective of local people in South Sudan. There is Arabic — Arabs coming with the Koran, Christians coming with the Bible, there is Chinese coming with —- to get oil. The U.N. is dropping food for poor people. The government of North Sudan are dropping bombs. All of this, one of the reasons why I used an airplane to make this movie is a lot of symbolisms kind of coincide in -—

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this plane. It is just astonishing.

HUBERT SAUPER: Sorry we don’t have time to be in the cockpit. I was flying it with my great —

AMY GOODMAN: What is the engine used?

HUBERT SAUPER: 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. He was learning how to fly over the war zone with me. He knew already how to film, he made amazing shots. I was filming myself. We used this little airplane as a means of transport to go into places where we were not 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 did not have fuel anymore. People took us in and we made friends with the locals or the military leaders. We had uniforms, basically to get along better with the military. We became, ourselves— we looked like idiots in uniforms.

AMY GOODMAN: You looked like pilots.

HUBERT SAUPER: We were pilots, but we were pilots in a flying tin can. We walked out as first officers and commanders and then we were saluted by the military and we were like linking up — 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 is a phallic machine. It’s white. It comes down onto the black continent. It is an evil machine. It drops bombs. It is a machine that is connected to religious symbolisms. The U.N. has these beautiful white birds who bring all of these doctors and help. Airplanes contain — an airplane contains within itself a number of symbolisms which are, of course, used in this kind of film — in this film "We Come as Friends."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it is 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 is called "We Come as Friends." It has just premiered here and we will have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival next month. His 2004 film, "Darwin’s Nightmare," was nominative for an Academy Award.