France-based Austrian documentary filmmaker Hubert Sauper is not used to retrospectives of his work. But things may soon change, as the critical acclaim and gradual release of his latest film We Come as Friends (2014) in different territories highlights the intensity, sharpness and deeply critical approach of his work. I met Hubert at the 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival during which five of his films were shown as part of a tribute to his work. Apart from We Come as Friends and the Oscar-nominated Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), this included Kisangani Diary (1998), his first film shot in Africa, Alone with our Stories (2001), a film about women abused by their partners, and On the Road with Emil (1993), his portrait of a circus director. Screenings were sold out, and lively Q&As followed with an audience keen to engage with films exposing the catastrophic implications of the West’s apparently well-meaning interventions in (not-so) faraway lands. By the time my interview slot arrived, Sauper was tired, but still very keen to engage to a discussion that allowed him to unpack further his approach to filmmaking. By sheer good luck, I bumped into him later at the festival party, and – refreshed as he was by then – we carried on the conversation until the early hours. So what follows is a combination of “formal” interview and “informal” information gathering. A bit like how he gets access to his topics in his films, as he pointed out to me; but, clearly, without the risks, the commitment or the scale of his projects.

Your films, especially your so-called “African trilogy”, which includes your latest work and your feature-length films, Darwin’s Nightmare and Kisangani Diary, explore different aspects of (neo)-colonialism through a deeply involved and personal engagement. Where did your interest in Africa arise?

First of all, I am European and not many Europeans go to Africa unless they bring the word of God and want to rape the country and steal the land – this is the unilateral kind of relationship of the last hundreds of years. My latest film is about that: how do you decide to destroy, dominate and possess other lands and cultures. The psychology of it is the theme of We Come as Friends – and this is the most profound lie in our civilisation. But the interesting thing is not only that Europeans have, for hundreds of years, managed to dominate other civilisations and people, and religious and belief systems, and moral systems; but also that Europeans succeeded to continuously re-write their own history and invent their own narrative about our being kind of saviours and helping everyone at being the best and bringing “the light”. This is, of course, like the absolute opposite of what happens. If you want to use a stretched metaphor, it is like a paedophile, who says “I really love children, I want them to be happy, and I donate so much money to the orphanages and every afternoon I go to see them, to see if they are OK.” This is, of course, a metaphor, but the relationship is just as hypocritical and perverse…

We Come as Friends

We Come as Friends

So the films are as much – if not more – about Europe than about Africa, in the sense that they target and criticise precisely the historical double bind in which Africa has been placed by European colonisation.

Yes. And in Africa, of course, these contradictions and hypocrisies are very obvious. But they can be found in many other contexts. As a kid, I experienced such contradictions, and I am planning a film – a fiction film – which will be based on these. I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s in the remote and apparently idyllic Tyrolian mountains – the setting of The Sound of Music – where my father was running an inn. WW2 was not really over; the demons of the Third Reich were all around. My teachers, the grown-ups around, were all potentially old Nazis, hiding in this picture perfect world, where every house had flowers, Tyrolian songs were sung for the tourists, the sky was blue and we went skiing… My father alerted me to this collision of realities, and I grew up with it – and it is kind of rough…

So your politicisation came from your parents and from the conditions of living in this context where there were so many contradictions?

Yes. I was growing up in this climate of collision. And then came the Vietnam War. It was already on when I was born, but the peak of the Vietnam War was when I was about six. At that point, the US had 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam, and the flying personnel who went delivering goods and dropping bombs were to a large extend based in Germany, in Frankfurt Rhein-Main – a big US military base. So the American guys who dropped out of the B52s 12 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, these guys who got rid of the green lands of Vietnam, came to the green mountains of my parents to recover. And often they stayed at the inn of my parents – with their nurses, full of LSD, full of drugs, half-crazed… but they were really friendly people too, so I grew up on their knees. Of course, as a kid you do not see things in perspective, everything you see is normal. But in retrospect these layers of reality and growing up among this double genocide and in this beautiful land was key to my interest in places such as central Africa where I can find this friction… I mean the hypocrisy of the discourse – of religious belief, of development, of progress, of AIDS, of industry – is very similar to what I was experiencing as a child.

So how did you actually find yourself on the UN train, on the way to the Congo, in 1997, in order to shoot Kisangani Diary, your first film about Africa?

As soon as I was old enough, when I was 18, I became a kind of a refugee and I went to Italy, France, the US and England. I trained as a hotel manager, and a ski teacher – but I was very much searching, like everyone else at 20, what to do. Then I started to take photos in order to become a photographer. Eventually I became accepted to film school at 22 – I am not sure why… And then I started studying, first in Vienna and then in Paris. But because of my position as someone on the run – being a refugee – I was interested in people like circus artists who were never in one place, and I made this film about the circus director, On the Road with Emil, that was shown here at the festival. And I went to Romania and Croatia and Transylvania to film gypsies… and then I started getting interested in refugees in general – like not being able to be in the place where you come from, for whatever reason. So I went to Tanzania for research and then came with the UN to Rwanda, and eventually to the centre of the Congo, still kind of planning to make a film about refugees returning home to Rwanda – about their lives, hopes and everyday life. I was not expecting war to break out in the Congo when I was there, and I was not expecting to see a couple of thousand of refugees dead on the ground.

Kisangani Diary

Kisangani Diary

So this was completely unexpected, and I was totally unprepared for it – professionally or psychologically – and the film I made was the necessity of dealing with this kind of reality all of a sudden. And I was completely overwhelmed: it was like a five year-old boy who sees his mother being raped and does not know what to do. I was very struck by this. Not only that the refugees were dying, but that very close to this there was an office of the UN, where everyone was talking about their vacations. And if they did not send the truck with the food that night but the next, or if they did not send it at all because somebody sold the fuel for the truck … if you are a kid waiting for the food just 20 miles down the road you could just die. And all because one truck driver went to the whore-house instead of using the money for the diesel. It is unbelievable, mind-boggling…

I did not just want to film people who were dying. What interested me was to see how the French news agency, for example, walked over the dying people and took pictures. So it was like one step back, looking at how the dead were photographed; but also filming ourselves and myself, and asking questions, like “what am I doing here?”, “what are we doing here?”, “what the fuck is going on?”, “how can we continue living with this together?” And of course the fact that as a filmmaker I have a means to communicate these questions, and I was there and saw all this, made it a little bit easier because it is not my problem, it is our problem – it is our “heart of darkness”.

Were you actually influenced by Joseph Conrad?

Conrad was in Kisangani when he started writing his Heart of Darkness – the story is about penetrating the forest and discovering this dark view of the world. I had no idea about Conrad or the book. When I finished this film people said “this looks exactly like Heart of Darkness”, and then I read it and also realised it was the inspiration for Francis Coppola for Apocalypse Now. So I was completely not conscious about this. But maybe subconsciously, as another European, being there, penetrating this jungle with this train, and being in this climate of fear and uncertainty, there was a certain parallel. But the “heart of darkness” that we Europeans and Americans refer to as the Congo is in reality our heart of darkness – it is the heart of the West, and it is not capable of dealing with its own crimes, not capable to confront its own true nature. So I think that the heart of darkness is not in the Congo – it is in us…

Kisangani Diary is probably the most immediately shocking of these three films, and the harshest image is that of the half-dead baby. This scene raises a number of ethical issues I want to discuss with you, especially if the baby was lifted for the camera in order to become a spectacle for us. Can you tell me more about this scene and, more generally, about how you negotiate the thin line of how much you can show without becoming exploitative?

I will tell you exactly how this scene came about. I was in this area together with a couple of other white people, and we were forced to evacuate to the city of Kisangani every night, and then come back in the morning to help. That morning, one of the local aid workers said: “let me show you what happened last night”, and then he showed us these death camps, these landscapes of thousands of bodies with babies trying to hold on to their dead mothers – it was totally unbelievable. Most of the time I was there I could not film – no battery power, the military was around, etc. – so most of my time there I was carrying babies into the camps, finding food, finding water, helping the agencies, organising stuff… But this very short moment I was able to film. I was basically following that group of Red Cross, and at some point this guy from the Congolese Red Cross said, “look at this mother, this baby”. So I recorded as they were showing us. And then, this guy François picked up this lifeless body and I realised that it was alive. And I was looking at him and the baby, and the camera was running – almost independently. As he was holding it he was talking and said “look what they have done to us, and nobody is here, and the UN does nothing…”, and he kept talking. (I removed his words because it was too much to include this image and then have subtitles about something else). And then he put the baby down and walked off…! And I was like… “So? What is going on?” I did not understand: “Why is he walking off? Why am I even here filming this?” But I knew that this moment of speechlessness that I experienced had to be communicated. And the next second I switched off the camera and said: “OK, what are we doing now?” And then he said, “I will pick it up on my way back in 15 minutes or so”, and he took it to a little improvised hospital nearby, and of course it died there like everyone else. But it was one baby out of thousands. And the power, fortunately, or unfortunately, is that this face and this moment that we recorded in the film is now part of your life and mine… and we have to deal with it, you know.

But of course the broader question that this fits into is to what extent seeing a lot of these horrific images desensitises you – it becomes like the spectacle of horror and it dehumanises. This is a bigger debate, of course, but I was wondering if you could tell us something about it.

This is of course the key ethical question. It has no answer; it only has answers in specific contexts. Of course, I had more footage about Kisangani. For example, I was turning round a film of a mass grave, with maybe five women – and they obviously had been raped: they had no clothes, their legs were spread out and there were flies on their vaginas. I did not put this into the film – it was impossible. So I was, in a way, also censoring certain things. But then you have to make decisions. I could have, of course, not shown that child to anyone.

I found that your answer to this was towards the end of this film, when you hold the gaze of these two kids looking at the camera for a while. It is like turning the gaze to the spectator. And you even interrupt the shot with one of the intertitles, further underlining its duration. This made me think that you are very aware of what you are doing. It was a very powerful moment.

Over the last half-century we have been seeing these images of starving African children, flies on their faces etc. – but they are always behind a veil that protects you as spectator. The veil is, first of all, that you see it relatively briefly; and that there almost is never sound; and if there is sound, it is almost random – usually it is the BBC or something, telling you what you see, and how to see and what is going to happen next, and what is the aid agency going to do next etc. Obviously as a spectator you are never exposed to this child, you are always in contact with the person who works for the UN or the BBC or something – so it disempowers you, and it de-responsibilises [sic] you. And of course, you are at home, and it is on the TV screen, and you can switch it off whenever you want. So as soon as you take away this first layer, which is the voice that explains to you what happens, you are already more exposed, and if you hear the person in the shot, then it is already full in your face, and if you are sitting in the cinema, you cannot switch it off … and that is too much… So I think that the fact that the baby that later dies has a voice is very essential.

I would like to discuss the question of access in your films – physical access to these remote locations; but also access in the sense of reaching out and understanding – across race, language and power structures.

Yes, access is a key question, both literally and metaphorically. In terms of Kisangani Diary, 1997 was the first time that I could have access to a very small camera, a High 8, and, for me it was the moment of freedom. It was a very small device that recorded sound and image. And I could move; and I did not need a structure or a crew. So I travelled with my girlfriend at the time, Zsuzsanna, who was a musician and she is also in the film playing the accordion. She also filmed a few things that I would have never filmed myself – a half naked woman crawling out of her tent. She could film her because she is a woman, I guess.

How did you reach the places and people you wanted?

I am a bit anarchist-like getting to places, and a joker, striking relationships with people and getting close to situations. In We Come as Friends the key questions were: “How to get to Chinese oilfield? How to get to the Libyan airbase?” There is no way to get there, unless you fall from the sky. So I had to build this airplane to get there. But, of course, apart from being a mode of transportation, it is like a Trojan Horse, like a bluff.

Why did you build your own airplane?

For many reasons: it had to be a very specific airplane, that would fly very slowly, be light, have very large wings (because if you have mechanical failure you can glide). So whenever we had engine problems, I was able to glide very slowly, almost like a parachute. I was always fascinated by planes and flying, and I was building model planes as a child. But also this machine I built subverts many of the symbolisms of an airplane, which are about combatting space and time, getting fast from A to B. (Combatting space and time is, by the way, a very colonial attitude: controlling and measuring time). So because it had these features, it was ridiculous… It had to be the opposite of what an airplane usually is – a superior machine, phallic and arrogant. So almost everywhere we went people took pity of us.

We Come as Friends

We Come as Friends

In Darwin’s Nightmare also the planes are key – but these are clearly, let’s say, the “colonial planes”. How did you get access in this case?

I physically went to Tanzania on these planes. I found these pilots mostly in Belgium, Ostende, they were on standby, drinking in a very cheap hotel, so I checked into the hotel, they were horribly drunk for days on end. And then they eventually said “oh we have a flight to Brazaville (the capital of Congo) tomorrow, come with us…”, and I said OK. I was preparing the moment. I was not saying “can I come aboard with your planes”… it is just a game.

How much do you pre-plan what will be in the films?

Darwin’s Nightmare and We Come as Friends are very conceptual films. People may think it is just this guy who travels with the camera and just switches it on when things happen. But lot of what is shown is premeditated – in the sense that I knew from many years of experience that if I find myself in a radio studio with a corrupt politician, he is going to say something that is going to be great for the film. Because whatever he says, it is like he shoots his own foot, because he is a part of this sinister, crazy and betraying system, which I am trying to describe. And sometimes it just takes just a little bit of triggering. For example, in the scene with the politician in South Sudan in We Come as Friends, I just needed to say “well … how about the land situation?” and he starts with “we have to give our land to the investors…”, and on and on he goes, and then he sings – or rather hums out of tune – the national anthem. As a filmmaker I am in heaven, I am ready to kiss him. But I also know that a few weeks before I recorded another song called “My Land” which is the antithesis of this scene.

I found that your last film had more moments of humour and irony than your previous ones…

Darwin’s Nightmare also has a lot of similar situations, such as the singing fish, and the prostitutes who sing in this bar. It is a hard decision to dose the light moments – but I need them for my own relief. The minister who does not know the national anthem is just perfect. And we have the right to laugh at him. Some people say “maybe if we laugh at him it is racist…”, because he is black. I do not give a shit whether he is black or not, he is just a crazy dude who is betraying his people.

Darwin's Nightmare

Darwin’s Nightmare

Darwin’s Nightmare unfolds relatively slowly. At the beginning we think it is about the ecological disaster, the economic exploitation, the starvation of the local people – and of course it is about all these things. But you keep probing the question: “what do the planes carry?” – and in the end you get a confession…

Yes, one of the pilots says it at the end: “I bring tanks to Angola and I take back grapes”. In some ways, the suspense is more interesting than the fact. But the fact that central Africa is overflowing with guns is undoubted. And guns do not grow in trees, so they have to arrive somehow. And it is not via Air France. I was not even thinking that I needed to deliver the evidence for this. It is like seeing drug addicts in the park: you do not have to see the needle to work it out. But when the controversy after the Oscar nomination broke out, it was like “there is this guy who knows nothing about reality, insinuating arms trade which is not even there…”. I was, like, “this is crazy”. The same thing with the fish-bone factory, which is making food for human beings: people said “this is for dogs… and Hubert’s film is all invented…”

Your films are life projects – not just films. They are processes, experiences. How long did it take you to complete your latest film, We Come as Friends?

Six years, from the concept to the final film. Two years shooting – but not continuously, and two years of editing. Before all this I also built the plane. This process was necessary for me to gain time to prepare for this trip, to read, to get ready to gear up. It then took half a year to go from France to the centre of this event with my plane – for a month and a half I was arrested in Libya, trying to find my way out, I had technical problems… It was all part of the deal. The plane is very slow. And the distance is very far. And the desert is very big. I was travelling and filming, of course. Then I left my plane for a couple of months in the hangar of the Chinese oilfield, and I flew with their Boeing jet to Khartoum, and returned to Europe to mentally and physically recover from all these uniform idiots I had encountered. And on my return, in order to survive, I ended up getting a captain uniform myself, so that when they stop me, they would not arrest me. Because when I was I travelling the first part of my trip in a t-shirt trying to be a nice guy, and claiming to be a captain, they were, like, “who the hell are you?” Then I realised that the only way to survive this military environment is to mutate into one; so I gave myself a four-star captain uniform, and my co-pilot a three-star one – and we became part of the protocol. And uniforms, of course, are part of my theme, which was part of the colonial bullshit…

But let me finish by asking you a few questions about form. In your films you use a lot of close ups of faces. Why is this?

This ispartly for technical reasons. As I do not use a separate microphone I need to be very close to my subjects in order that what they say is recorded and heard. But it is also because I create an intimate relationship. I am and want to physically be very close to them, and my camera is just next to my face.

In Kisangani Diary and Darwin’s Nightmare you use intertitles with facts, while in We Come as Friends you do not. Also in Kisangani Diary and We Come as Friends you use some voice over, but not in Darwin’s Nightmare. What determines such formal choices?

I decide this in the editing process. For example, in We Come as Friends I initially had intertitles, but then I removed them, as I did not find them necessary. I used voice over only at the start in order to introduce the situation – and, of course, this is the only film in which you can briefly see me too, in my captain’s uniform. I am not attached to a particular technique as long as the film communicates its points. Sometimes the aesthetic decisions are determined by particular problems. For example, in Kisangani Diary some of the film was damaged, and the colour was distorted. So I chose to remove the colour all together, which is why some of the footage is in black-and-white.

And your next project, as we discussed before, will probably be a fiction film about the Vietnam War. So you are not particularly tied to documentary as a form, as long as you can communicate what you want to say?

I am still very much exploring the possibilities for my next film. I just came back from Vietnam, and it was kind of painful. I was trying to find old American soldiers who were still in Vietnam. But whether you use documentary or fiction you can be just as political. It depends on the questions you ask. And the questions I want to ask are just as painful whatever the form I choose.