Thursday, August 13, 2015

Interview: Hubert Sauper on We Come as Friends and the Perils of Documentary Filmmaking

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Talking to filmmaker Hubert Sauper is a dangerous proposition. Friendly, humble yet extremely charismatic, you feel like you can talk to him all day. You don't feel the passage of time listening to his riveting stories. His ease and nonchalance with himself let your guard down the first time you see him.

Even with the heavy subject, the newly founded South Sudan and his new film We Come as Friends about the country, our conversation was full of laughs and giddiness. Only later you realize how gifted a communicator Sauper really is both with film and in person.

We Come as Friends opens Friday in New York. Please visit IFC Center website for tickets. *Sauper will be on hand for Q & As for Friday and Saturday screenings.

You've done films about Rwanda (KISANGANI DIARY), Tanzania (DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE) and now South Sudan. Your interests in Africa goes way back about 20 years. Can you tell me how it all started?

I went to Africa in 1997. Before then, I knew about Africa as much as most Europeans, which is almost nothing, except what everyone knew already - that those poor people needed help, that we should send them clothes and food. And I understood pretty quickly that...what it means to be European and how everything was intertwined, that our continents are extremely connected over thousands of years and that this dialectic about north and south- as in Asia and Americas, is kind of pathological and unbalanced.

And I got interested in Africa not because it's 'Africa'. But because it's kind of collision line, as I say in my films- between forces, cultures, regions in terms of the world's economic interests. So I'm basically interested in human condition, not necessarily Africa as some kind of an object. But of course I feel somehow connected to it for some reason. I feel, so to speak, at home. It sounds very colonial I know. (laughs embarrassingly)

So yeah, all my films are not about Africa. What I can see is not always obvious but some times I can see things because my odd life (as a filmmaker) that other people can not, because they have other things to do. They have a job within the UN and work on the seize-fire and I don't know it's a different kind

But also I'm more and more interested in the discrepancy between 'what is' and 'what is told' as history is not 'what happened' but 'what is told what happened'. This all notion of North/South, globalism, slavery, colonialism narrative is, in my point of view, so off track from what I can see and feel as I discover in my, so to speak, adventures you know which in itself is an appendix of colonial-

Do you really feel that way?

Oh yeah. When the early pioneers, explorers and settlers were part of the equation then I am too as an European. As a kid I was fascinated by Star Trek, going to new planets every Saturday night and experience the perils of the other world.

That's in this film, right? You start it with...

The narrative of advancing space and time then actually of course taking over and possessing and getting rid of bad guys.

So all of these ideas were what I was playing with, gravitated toward and confused about. Maybe I wanted to bring in that confusion into something that seems to be too clear. Maybe it was also about adolescent feelings about the's always refreshing and great thing to be able to be doing this at almost fifty and screwing the lives of warlords and... (I laugh)

Three films in almost twenty years span. Does it take a long time for you to make one project?

Yeah. Well, the gap between Darwin's Nightmare and this film is extreme because, first of all it's a way of life and it's a long haul - the thinking process and money and financing and you have to establish all these access in an inaccessible world.

But this was extreme because I had to get rid of so much very threatening forces against me after Darwin's Nightmare. I couldn't really believe what was happening to my life. The film became very successful after it won bunch of awards and got nominated for an Oscar and all that. It was two years after the film was made. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Because I needed that Oscar (nom) to get financing for my films and I got suddenly this exposure so all these wrong people saw my film. These are powerful people- gun runners in Africa and so on. They decide to go after not only me but also people in the film. They were persecuted and imprisoned and had death threats and lawsuits from very dubious groups of people who had a lot of money.

So my life was literally upside down - I had to get people out of the county, my friends had a direct threat against them and their house was destroyed and they were imprisoned.

Oh god.

So I had to do undercover operations for years to understand what happened and counterattack the core group of people who were running this hate campaign.

They were claiming many things in the film were not true. I don't know if you are interested in this but they claimed those fish bones in the film are not for humans but for dogs.

But it's there in the film that kids are eating them!

The second claim was purely mentioned by filmmaker but you don't see the guns. So there was no gun running - you don't see them so nothing happened.


The third claim was that those street kids were actors. They were actually from good homes but they were dressed up miserably for the camera and acting for me to...

Exploit them?

It was just insane. Any intelligent person can see that what they are claiming is bullshit but when the film is running for the Oscar and when it was in the press, so shit hit the fan. This triggered then, the (Tanzanian) government going down to the people to...


So I had to take care of this and it took so much time and energy that We Come as Friends was delayed for years.

But...I don't now regret it. I went after these people in France. The head of the defamation campaign was found guilty of defamation which is a very heavy crime in France and they shut down the campaign finally. But I had to go all the way to protect all the people who were involved in it.

That's a crazy story Hubert. But the thing is you went right back to South Sudan to do this film!

Yeah but I mean, when you go through something like that, you get stronger. After that I was clearer about my convictions and my ideas, not that I'm sure I know the truth but I have certain convictions that are stronger than before.

But also after that, suddenly I understood certain dissidents better- when it's your own skin, own life that's threatened, it's very different.


It gave me a realization that I need to make a movie that stands itself against all the scrutiny.

The thing about WE COME AS FRIENDS is its scope: you are charting the whole Sudan conflict in one film. Not that your other films are any less expansive, but with this one, you are really painting the big picture.

There are couple of elements that stood out for me. I found the Christian missionaries part very interesting. It's obvious that they are doing a lot of damage to the fabric of the Sudanese society. But was there any debate in your mind to weigh pros and cons of what these missionaries are doing there?

Well, if you are living in a village in Sudan and over head there is a bomber plane from Khartoum, from Islamic regime. And bomb your village and kill your daddy or your mommy and a week afterwords, somebody from Texas and they feed you and give you socks, you would be happy too, no?


The fact that a lot of these missionaries are so sure about their belief in their world, I find that quite fascinating and of course scary too. They are basically antiquating (the native culture). They are just a tip of the iceberg. They are from our industrial, Judeo-Christian world. They are just doing their job you know. They are sent by our military industrial complex which needs to go out and dress the naked people. How could they be around guarding our oil field if they are naked? They need socks and they need uniforms you know? This is the mad wheel of... this is what exactly the film is trying to describe.

When I got to South Sudan I have to admit that someone said that this is a country with almost no roads. And I can see that people are naked. We are uncomfortable because they don't fit in our picture that they are not controllable.

That was an absurd scene to see them putting socks on a baby even though they live on the dirt floor.

I remember growing up getting taught by everyone that we need to send clothes to Africa. It was the most normal thing to do, "of course everyone needs clothes." There is no second thought. It's fascinating to think that we don't give a second thought. The settlers live there and go to fancy parties and stay at the poolside and sip cocktails. They are part of the system.

Speaking of no roads, the film starts with that rickety plane that you are traveling on.  How dangerous was that? It seemed very unsafe given the history of air travel in that region. I know many politicians died in a plane or helicopter crash, presumably shot down by their enemies.

The problem with the politicians is that they tend to die after they sign a peace agreement.

Yeah exactly.

So they don't want to sign any peace agreements. (I laugh)
You laugh but this is no joke. When they say, "OK, let's put down our gun." There are others who want to keep fighting. They say, "You are dead. We don't need you anymore."

That's how John Garang died.

Yeah. Supposedly it was an accident but many signs point to the fact that some didn't want him alive. But nobody knows. I don't want to know. I don't want to put my nose into their affairs.


I know Rwandan president died that way, the head of the UN (Dag Hammarskjöld) died in congo and there are many other cases.

But I didn't sign any peace agreement so... (I laugh)

To give you an answer to your question, that plane seems more dangerous in the film than it actually was. But in many cases we were in very uncomfortable situations with the soldiers and restrictions, really frightening moments and actually the plane got us out of those situations. We said that we were going to do repair on the plane, go back to the plane, and just take off.

In the air, we were flying high enough not to be shot down by any missiles or RPGs. It was like we are in our spaceship, joking and laughing and land somewhere and get arrested and imprisoned for days.

So of course there was a risk of engine failure and fall into a crocodile infested swamps. But I get scared in retrospect only. One thing is for sure: if you are in a civil war, jumping one place to another, there is a bigger chance to get shot in the face with Kalashnikoff than die in a plane crash. You have many checkpoints  and there are young guys with guns on drugs...

Do you think it helps you in those situations for a fact you are white european?

You know in the colonial heritage by the way there was this belief system that they can't kill white people because if you do, then the ghosts or spirits of the white men will haunts you. Until the point in history when French rounded up thousands of Senegalese to fight in WWI against Germans. They had to shoot at Germans who were white. And they got back after the emancipation process and told their people, "OK, we can shoot the white guys."

That's absurd.

No, it's not. That's how they got independence after the World War I. They shot the governor and found out there were no white ghosts following them.

But in Sudan, to answer your question...when you feed it into the protocols, when you have a uniform on - then you are potentially part of a bigger group. Then the question they ask is, "who are you with?" I usually answer them that I am with them.

There was another thing that struck me in the film. Whenever you land, people were asking the question if you were Muslim or Christian. The intensity in their eyes scared me.

But I'm neither. I am nothing.

I think they want me to wrap up, even though we just started. I have a friend from Congo. He kept saying that the time has come for the Africans- Everyone had their spotlights: the Europeans,  Americans and the Asians had their day. He believes it's time for Africans to experience the power and wealth in the world. I told him jokingly that it is possible only if we don't destroy the world before then. Are you hopeful for the Africans or do you see their problems too big to overcome because of the shadows of colonialism still hanging over them?

Very much so. But to be honest, I'm not a pessimistic person. If Africa had its moments- I wouldn't say it's impossible. But it is more likely that the world is on fire and they have lands and cows and they could live off the land, then they will be OK. Then that would be their time.

There is a song at the end, "Tomorrow is My Turn" I gave the song script to the singer, Malia, and told her to look at the kids in the film in photos. She put the photos in front of her near the microphone. The song is her singing for the kids.

But even if, lets say Africa becomes superpower, it's just the group of people who'd get very rich within Africa.


New/Old Colonialism

We Come as Friends (2015) - Sauper
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Hubert Sauper, a Paris based filmmaker known for his searing eco-disaster exposé in Tanzania, Darwin's Nightmare (2005), continues to document the African continent in his new documentary, We Come As Friends. This time, he sheds light on the post-referendum era Sudan. And it is a damning indictment of new-old colonialism that casts shadows on every corners of the youngest country in the world - South Sudan.

Sudan's decades long civil war claimed estimated 2.5 million lives and created the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII. In the West, Sudan became synonymous with child soldiers, Lost Boys of Sudan and various Human Rights violations.

After decades of the bloody conflict, South Sudan's Christian majority finally broke free from Khartoum's merciless Islamic government and voted resounding yes to the cessation in 2011.

Still, as Sauper examines, that the newly founded country is riddled with many serious problems. He makes a broader claims that the chaos stems from the colonial past. He draws parallels with then and now, with British and French drawing the line in the sand throughout the continent and Chinese and American companies competing for dominance securing the country's natural resources - the oil fields that precariously borders the north and south.

Sauper, seen on the fields documenting and asking questions, shows that the control for oil fields are still raging among different factions. The oil revenues buy more weapons to fuel the conflict. Chinese oil and mine companies buy up the lands from locals who don't have the concept of land ownership exploit the land and don't take responsibilities for environmental damages. It's jarring to see garbage strewn road to the oil company compounds and seeing so many Chinese workers living in workers camp in the middle of nowhere. There are no contacts between them and its native inhabitants nearby.

With animosity between Muslims and Christians are scarier than ever and the threat of violence is regarded a necessity between them. Whenever Sauper and his crew lands their rickety plane, the first question people ask is whether they are Muslim or Christian, the intensity of their question and stares barely contains the possibilities of violence.

Stock footage of group of white settlers and dignitaries chilling near poolside is juxtaposed with modern day missionaries and foreign dignitaries. Farmers and other inhabitants are losing their land to 99 year leases for Christian missionaries and their western style schools. Children in their traditional garb are banned from attending schools. And well meaning white settlers are seen giving out T-shirts and putting sox on a Sudanese toddler on the dirt floor.

Just like Darwin's Nightmare some years ago, We Come as Friends points out overwhelmingly dire circumstances the post-colonial Africans find themselves in. We see the human cost of up close and personal and its devastating. The film's a little unwieldy and expansive, but one should give Sauper a credit for trying to encompass everything that's been going on for decades in a country still riddled with open wounds of the colonial past in 1 hour 40 minutes. It's another strong case against the long lasting effect of colonialism.

We Come as Friends opens August 14 at IFC Center. Please check IFC Center website for tickets & more info.

Ice Queen

Amnesiac (2015) - Polish
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Twin filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish occupies a special spot in American indie landscape. Since their strong debut Twin Falls Idaho, a weird little movie about conjoined twins, the brothers have been chugging along surviving in Hollywood, acting and directing series of independent films since the late 90s. They have a very distinctive visual style with a narrative steeped in magic realism while invoking the American West of yesteryears - men in dark suits and fedoras, expansive vistas, etc - my favorite film of theirs being Northfork.

Amnesiac, a small film not written by and not starring either Polish, is another unusual solo outing, after Big Sur, a Jack Keruac adaptation in 2013, by Michael Polish as a director. This stylish, slow burn psychological thriller stars Kate Bosworth as a deranged veterinarian who wants a perfect American family. Wes Bentley is her victim, a captive in her grand mansion, who has lost his memory after the car accident.

As our unwitting captive slowly gains consciousness, he explores the big house while limping. He doesn't get too far though. Always caught in the midst of confusion as to where and who he is, he is led back to the bed again and again, being assured by his supposedly loving wife that his memories will come flooding back in time.

He vaguely remembers the accident and a flash of a young girl in the back seat of the car. His captor insists that they are a married couple. But slowly he finds out that she is a murderess and holding him bedridden for a reason.

There are the usual Polish touches everywhere, from anamorphic cinematography with the full use of light and space to 1950's style artifacts - Bosworth's old Hollywood ice queen, mouthing idiosyncratic trivial pursuit-style facts, big old convertibles, home movies on film, old phonographs, etc. Amnesiac dutifully follows the tried and true captive plot, a.k.a. Misery, but it is a lot less concerned about the plot details. Bentley's character endures much of his screen time tied to a bed, drugged and old-timey electro-shocked for misbehaving. And there are some thrilling moments as the outside force, a mailman and a cop, snooping around after the disturbances caused by the captives. As the cat-and-mouse game plays out, physical space becomes tighter and tighter, finally gets confined to a basement for the climax.

Obviously the film is Bosworth vehicle. After giving wonderfully nuanced performance as Billie, a longtime mistress of Neal Cassidy who comes between him and Jack Keruac in Polish's Keruac adaptation of Big Sur, she changes gears here completely. Even though her character is short on exposition, she commands the screen with her icy demeanor. There is a slight backstory to her character but she doesn't really need our sympathy, because she is completely in charge of the situation - even when she gets stabbed with a pair of shearing scissors. It's a quite dark, demanding role and Bosworth wears it well, as she calmly takes care of business with an electronic hedge trimmer.

Amnesiac is a refreshing take on the psychological thriller. It's relatively a small project, but Polish and Bosworth make the most of it and make it shine.

XLrator Media will be releasing AMNESIAC in Theaters on VOD and iTunes on August 14th.

Polish Filmmaking: Michael Polish Interview

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Amnesiac is the second solo outing by Michael Polish (one of the identical twin filmmakers, the Polish brothers) after his Jack Keruac adaptation Big Sur (which is great and everyone should see it). The thriller stars his wife Kate Bosworth as a femme fatale, playing against type and features his signature visual style. As a moviegoer who's been following the brothers career closely, I was eager to talk to Michael about his interesting career as a filmmaker so far.

You and your brother have a very interesting career trajectory in American cinema landscape since your debut TWIN FALLS IDAHO.

You know me when I was a conjoined twin. (laughs)

I've been following your careers closely. One of my favorite films of all time being NORTHFORK. It's a great film.

Oh thank you. Yeah. You only get to make one of those in your career, that's for sure.

You have written, directed many different kinds of films. I'd like to know your process in choosing a project. AMNESIAC is not written by you and I am wondering how it came about?

I was intrigued in how visually I could bring something to this. So I wanted to think of it as a two-hander, meaning it was two people in a contained area and I knew that landscape pretty well, knew that environment because I've done that before - I've done a film called For Lovers Only where there's only two people running and we were chasing them around.

In the screenplay, Amnesiac didn't have the period aspect. It was basically a modern day piece with a sort of femme fatale. I thought it would be psychologically thrilling to have a main woman character believe that she lived in the 1950s. She is doing everything to make 1950's nuclear family. That she is stuck in a sort of a time capsule. I thought that would elevate what we didn't see in the screenplay. Everyone was on board with making this a period piece. We then knew we might have something special.

It's very you though. I've seen those period details in your films before. I thought that Michael Polish touch was everywhere.

Also it's a second film without your brother's involvement. Are you going separate ways in filmmaking now with you doing your thing and Mark doing HEADLOCK?

We did three films we co-wrote and produced and directed: we had sort of classic sense of producer-director relationship and Mark acting in them. After Northfork, we got to do Astronaut Farmer. But we could feel that at that point we wanted to do different things. We ended up getting a lot of things financed that are previously written and we decided to produce everything that we can do together, knowing that we will get a lot of different work separately later. I don't think we ever set our goal to be like the Coen brothers. As long as we were happy doing it together, we just thought that it was a nice way to launch our careers.

I always thought that you guys always had a very distinctive visual style- your use of space and lighting. In AMNESIAC it's also no exception. It's a small movie with everything taking place in almost one location. What kind of challenges did you have?

Challenge was in how to make one house interesting- if we were able to move around the house, if the house was a maze - you are not sure where you are at, kind of thing. The biggest room (the main bedroom), as the things got worse, got smaller and smaller and they end up in the basement. I thought, let's start big and then see how much we can cram things in to a basement.

Visually we ended up making it darker and darker. I still wanted the movie to be soft lit. I didn't want to bring a lot of lights and make it overly dramatic horror film. I wanted to be sort of classical, painterly murder.

Going in from a huge Cinemascope type of world but it gets smaller and smaller makes people feel very confined by the end. I wanted to the film to be like a rubics cube, so we go back to a same scene over and over again.

It's very effective.

It's a very different role for your wife Kate Bosworth since BIG SUR in which I thought she was great in. Here she plays a kidnapper and a murderer.

She initially brought the screenplay to me. Then she asked me what I thought of it. And I said that the character's very strong but it might be better if we made her look like somebody else. So we made her look at certain types- a Hitchcock blonde and even Ed Hopper paintings. I told her, "You like this character. So Let's make her look like she seriously believe her own world." She had a lot of fun with the character. Yes it's very classically themed. She is this classic blonde. From that, we had a place to jump off from. You didn't really need to make her go there because the character was so stylish.

Kind of 50s movie star, the ice queen...

Yeah, exactly.

You see the movie and it's pretty dark and serious. But it was a lot of fun. You know there was a lot of laughter on the set. But when you see Wes Bently really go at it - talk about being at the dinner table scene and him remembering things. After calling 'cut,' everybody started laughing because it was pretty psycho. (laughs)

Tell me about 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN.

Ah right. This is a film that's coming out in September. That's another whole different direction I took. I say if Amnesiac is about hell, this movie is about heaven. It couldn't be farther apart. You wouldn't expect a filmmaker going from one extreme to another.

It was based on a fascinating story about a minister who was killed on a bridge. I found it really interesting in exploring something where you had a near death experience. Again, visually of course, I wanted to see what I can do. It had a lot of religious aspect to it which I found fascinating. Obviously some of the most beautiful art in the world is based and probably inspired by religion. It's a modern day piece but I was able to work with my cinematographer (M. David Mullen) to make it feel and look classically beautiful in a way that nobody has seen in movies before.

I always thought that your style is a good fit for a western. I want to see a Michael Polish Western some day.

That is in my pocket somewhere. I'm gonna pull that out pretty soon.

I'm very much looking forward to it.

Amnesiac opens in theaters and VOD on August 14.