Sunday, September 13, 2015

We Come As Friends

WE COME AS FRIENDS                 B+                  
Austria  France  (110 mi)  2014  d:  Hubert Sauper               Official site

It’s nearly impossible to stay connected to some of the worst trouble spots around the globe, as disasters of the worst scale continue to plague the human condition, some reaching epic proportions, yet the rest of the world barely even notices so long as it’s not happening in their neighborhood.   As Wim Wenders recent documentary reveals in The Salt of the Earth (2014), while some continue to lead lives of privilege and wealth safely protected from harm’s way, others are subjected to catastrophic conditions of nightmarish proportions, where both worlds simultaneously exist on the same planet but rarely intersect, where the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” seems applicable.  To anyone living in either world, it’s as if the “other” doesn’t even exist.  This might well explain the reluctance of the developed societies in Europe, England, Canada and the United States to come to grips with the ever worsening refugee crisis, the worst since World War II, that is currently besieging Europe (Europe's refugee crisis, explained) from Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya and—above all—Syria, where nearly a fifth of the population, or more than 4 million people have fled the country since the war began in 2011, as otherwise they face the prospects of kidnapping, rape, and forced marriage at the hands of ISIS or being subject to chemical weapons and barrel bombs from their own Assad government.  Not wishing to spend the rest of their lives in the deprivation of overcrowded refugee camps, which are not only a breeding ground for disease but they continue to remain targets for both ISIS and Assad attacks.  Should they be fortunate enough to make their way into America, which only allowed a total of 1500 refugees in all of 2014, or European countries, they face barbed wire fences, abusive police tactics, and anti-immigrant hatred and fanaticism where refugee shelters have come under attacks from right-wing extremists in Germany using Google maps to identify their locations.  The terror that drives this mass exodus is in many ways bound to even tighter immigration restrictions, where the recent practice of restricting entrants and shutting down borders has only intensified the mayhem and hysteria, resembling the Greek financial crisis where banks were open to foreigners but shut down to local Greek citizens for weeks on end.  With that as a modern day backdrop, the film opens with the construction of a primitive three-seat aircraft named Sputnik that resembles something you might see on The Jetsons, flying across the Mediterranean before plunging us into the “Dark Continent” of Africa, where like a visitor arriving from outer space, this Paris based filmmaker warns the audience ahead of time to alter their perspective, as he will almost certainly be perceived by ordinary black Africans as some kind of alien creature.  We hear in a subtitled African language that white people came from Europe and took Africa by force, plundering the wealth of natural resources and carving up the continent into different countries with arbitrary boundaries, leaving Africans to fight among themselves.  When they were done with that, they went and conquered the moon, concluding his eloquent speech with a coup de grace, “Did you know that the Moon belongs to the white man?” 

Literally dropping from out of the sky, Sauper and his pilot land in the outskirts of some unnamed African bush country where they are immediately approached by tribal villagers asking their intentions, where the leaders are skeptical of their presence, claiming it’s dangerous for them to be there, as the intentions of whites in Africa are largely suspect, where certainly one of the major problems plaguing Africa’s history for the last several hundred years has been the lingering consequences of white inflicted colonialism.  While much of this is still thought of in the past tense, this film proves otherwise, showing colonialism to be alive and well in its modern form, where every manner of get-rich-quick scheme is taking place under the guise of self-improvement, yet the perpetrators of these “deals” that supposedly benefit African citizens are big pocket investors from outside the continent.   Much of this recalls Rachel Boynton’s searing portrait of American oil companies in search of newly discovered oil reserves in Ghana from Big Men (2013), where the dominant capitalistic interests are so overwhelmingly in favor of the oil companies, yet they hide their true objectives behind puppet African figureheads who have been given titles and positions of prominence in African “corporations” that have been formed only to bypass laws designed to exclude outsiders from obtaining controlling interests in what are African resources.  While we’ve seen meticulously documented films like Peter Bate’s CONGO: WHITE KING, RED RUBBER, BLACK DEATH (2003) or Oreet Rees and Pippa Scott’s KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST (2006), both exposing the systematic atrocities from Belgium’s 19th and 20th century colonial intrusion into the Congo, where they burned and destroyed up to a hundred local villages for rubber plantations, shooting anyone who disagrees, imprisoning the villagers for slave labor, kidnapping the wives of the working men, then cutting off the men’s hands if they resisted or if what they produced was too small, where the history of atrocities is horrendous, yet the underlying method behind this madness was purportedly “bringing civilization to the uncivilized.”  Instead they brought murders and mutilations (which have been historically passed down to subsequent generations), and a swath of destroyed villages.  This same philosophy is being used again today, promising rewards and benefits for local communities, while working behind the scenes are lawyers and politicians trying to obtain legal authorization for multi-national corporate contracts by foreign investors.  It’s important to recall Andrew Sarris in his review of King Leopold’s Ghost (2006) from the New York Observer, August 28, 2006, Higher Learning: Half Nelson Wrestles With Drugs, Race ..

King Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909) was in a class by himself as a colonial exploiter. He reigned as King of Belgium from 1865 to his death. He also reigned as King of the Congo Free State from 1876 to 1904, when he was forced to abdicate because the horrors of his supposedly “benevolent” rule could no longer be hidden or suppressed. But he didn’t abandon Congo empty-handed: He sold his holdings in the colony to the Belgium nation for what might be described as a princely sum, if not an outright swindle of the Belgian people. The monuments to Leopold’s greed can be seen today in many parts of Belgium and the French Riviera. Indeed, the thriving port city of Antwerp was built virtually on the backs of the wretched Congolese laborers engaged in the labor-intensive industries of mining, harvesting and hunting for gold, diamonds, rubber and ivory, among many other valuable commodities. In more recent times, Congo has become one of the chief sources of uranium for the world’s nuclear generators and arsenals. That is the ultimate horror of the film: that not much has changed since Leopold II began his artfully capitalist manipulations over a century ago. In the end, he is almost a comic figure in what has turned out to be an unending horror-movie nightmare of prodigious proportions. 

Among the more fascinating footnotes to this saga of evildoing is the derogation, even destruction, of the legend of British journalist, explorer and self-glorifier Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), best known in the popular mind for his expedition into Africa in search of David Livingstone, whom he greeted with the words “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” in 1871. I still remember Henry King’s 1939 Stanley and Livingstone, in which Spencer Tracy as Stanley asks the famous question of Cedric Hardwicke. It turns out that Stanley had a more shameful mission in Africa, serving as Leopold’s advance bullyboy to intimidate the natives and hunt elephants for their valuable ivory. In essence, the time-honored Stanley was an imperial thug for Leopold II, and the Congolese people felt the lash of his whip, both real and metaphorical.

A more edifying footnote involves the immortal Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), whose experiences as a steamboat captain in Congo provided him with the background material for The Heart of Darkness (1899). When Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s tale, journeys up the river in search of the madman Kurtz, he finds him hallucinating to the refrain of “the horror, the horror”—Conrad’s elegant summation of what he himself had found in Leopold’s tormented realm. Ironically, Leopold himself never set foot in Congo, though his massive footprints in the region are still visible today in the poverty and suffering of the Congolese people, who have never benefited from the exploitation of the region’s vast resources.

The U.S. government and many of the largest American corporations have collaborated with the Belgian colonialists and their own military and corporate sponsors to keep the people of the region from shaping their own destinies. During the period of the Cold War, President Eisenhower and the C.I.A. conspired with the Belgian military to have nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba arrested and murdered by a military thug named Mobuto Sese Seko, who continued the looting of Congo in the name of the anti-Communist crusade—an ideological dodge that Leopold himself would certainly have appreciated if only he’d been around to see it. King Leopold’s Ghost can be recommended as an economical education in one of the lesser-known atrocities of the capitalist system, as well as an eye-opening account of history’s most ruthless amasser of wealth. The people down at Wall Street should erect a statue to the larcenous Leopold: Why should Belgium and the French Riviera have all his monuments?  

Filmed over several years, flying his tiny aircraft around with the greatest of ease, literally criss crossing around the country of Sudan as South Sudan is about to declare its independence in 2011.  A seemingly endless civil war in three prolonged stages has been taking place in Sudan, which is essentially a battle between a northern Islamic government and a southern Christian majority, the first lasting from 1955 – 1972, while the impact of the second from 1983 to 2005, which was largely a continuation of the first, cost an estimated 2.5 million lives, displaced another 4 million or more, and became synonymous with kidnappings, child soldiers and ethnic cleansing.  Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes for his campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage against civilians in Darfur while also accused of embezzling as much as $9 billion dollars from state coffers.  South Sudan finally had enough and over 98% voted for a cessation in 2011, becoming recognized internationally, electing President Salva Kiir who stands out wearing his everpresent Stetson cowboy hat that he proudly wears, a gift from former President George W. Bush.  Unfortunately, a third civil war has erupted again in 2013, which is essentially a dispute between two ethnic tribes vying for power, including the president and vice-president, Riek Machar, who was dismissed in July 2013 and the position abolished, where the instability actually postponed the July 2015 presidential elections, instead extending Kiir’s term by another three years.  None of this historic backdrop is included in the film, but knowledge of it helps frame the film, as the impact of colonialism is at the root of every modern day atrocity in Africa where past historical transgressions continue to plague the present, as even in the initial euphoria of founding a new government, where George Clooney can be seen mingling with the newly elected politicians and Secretary of State Clinton can be seen on television making rosy promises about economic opportunities in South Sudan, the nation is beset with unending problems.  Instead of reinvesting in the infrastructure of their own nation, the government quickly spends bulging oil revenues on more weapons, which only compounds the problem, as various factions continue to fight over control of the oil fields, most of which sit precariously close to the border between the north and the south.  Exacerbating the situation, Chinese oil and mine companies buy up land from the locals, who are mostly farmers with little to no education, having no comprehension of the word “property,” where in their eyes the land seems vast and endless, as they are used to sharing space with neighbors, living in a society where farmers have never had to “own” their own land.  The idea of receiving money for what they would gladly give up for free simply doesn’t register as they unwittingly sign away 99-year exclusive-rights leases.  They can’t conceive how quickly the open space has been turned into a giant oil industry compound, with company roads littered with garbage, with no consideration whatsoever for environmental concerns, where one farmer tells us that ever since the oilmen came, chickens and children die when they drink the water.  It seems absurd to see giant housing compounds built in the middle of nowhere filled with Chinese oil workers that have no contact whatsoever with the local villagers that still live nearby, as this is where they’ve lived for generations.      

Shot in a cinéma vérité style, the film isn’t a narrative so much as a series of vignettes, logging some 10,000 kilometers (over 6000 miles), where Sauper claims “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.  The plane was sort of a bluff, a Trojan horse that fell from the sky.”  Shown through encounters with local villagers, government officials, UN representatives, relief workers, Chinese and Texas oilmen, American missionaries, and many more, the rough, handheld camerawork reveals an incredibly raw aesthetic, where the audience is brought closer to the realism of the subject matter.  One of the longest sections of the film deals with white Christian missionaries that build churches and religious schools to spread the mission of Christianity.  At the same time, it can be jarring to see soldiers armed with Kalashnikov rifles asking Sauper if he is Muslim or Christian, where lives were lost in previous military campaigns depending on the answer that one gives.  Children in these schools are sent home if they wear any traditional African jewelry or clothing, insisting upon uniform dress, while at home jewelry is a sign of distinction and rank among their own tribe.  Equally insistent is the Christian intent to dress these children in “their own image,” including toddlers, not allowing them to run barefoot, but forcing them to wear socks on the dirt floors inside their mud huts, also handing out solar-driven talking Bibles and T-shirts for them to wear instead of traditional garb.  One evangelical couple describes the Christian community of South Sudan as “New Texas,” noting the similarity in arid climate, while another reports that goats used to graze on land he claimed for himself, but not since he put a fence around it, effectively cutting off grazing area for cattle as well.  A few locals expressed their displeasure with his fence, but in true dismissive tone he adds, “They got over it.”  This footage is juxtaposed against images of politicians and ambassadors dressed in suits for an economic summit discussing the future of job opportunities and economic development, where crates of Coca Cola and other soft drinks are brought in by the handful.  White business entrepreneurs are seen lingering in the background, where one crudely remarks, “I make an airport, and your people can clean it,” while others are outspoken Texas oilmen expressing their desire to get into the game and make a ton of money—for themselves—where the crassness of white opportunism, often seen poolside at upscale hotels, overshadows everything that we see, where according to a British worker who makes a living destroying mines and bombs left over from the region’s many wars, “There must be a reason they’re still 200 years behind.”  In the same breath he boasts of having three women living with him in his compound along with several armed guards.  Perhaps most heartbreaking is listening to a confused South Sudanese elder describe the hostility he has received from neighbors claiming he signed away their village land.  While he vociferously denies this accusation, claiming he received no financial compensation, but unwittingly did place an X on a document placed in front of him that he was led to believe would benefit his village, but in effect signed away the rights to 600,000 hectares of communal land.  This exact same behavior recalls the deceptive practices of well-educated white men that misled American Indians (who also spoke a different language) to sign away rights to their land as well, led to believe they were signing a peace agreement, eventually opening up the American West to white settlers.  Similarly, like El Dorado in Herzog’s AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), capitalism is alive and well, as it’s open season in South Sudan, available to the highest bidder, where Africa is there for the taking. 

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