We Come as Friends might look at first like despair tourism. Hubert Sauper's portrait of the Sudan's cruel new colonialism opens with a vision of intense beauty: In the honeyed light just before evening, a young boy, nude but for a beaded necklace, dashes down a sun-baked path carrying a plastic bottle of water. His smile is sweet and wide — unless you're one of the American evangelicals we meet later in the film, the ones committed to tugging shoes and socks onto the feet of every African, this kid's joy will make you smile, too. Soon after that we see the toylike, lightweight, two-man prop plane in which the filmmakers are zipping about South Sudan, the world's newest country. We see the director, a white Frenchman, plead his case to the leaders of a village: It will be dark soon, and he and his crew need a place to stay. The leaders are skeptical, even hostile — whenever has the arrival of a white man been good for them?
Those first moments play into white, Western notions about Africa, the ideas we get from the movies: a Gods Must Be Crazyland of childlike natural freedom, of an out-of-time purity that we might be losing through the corrupting spread of plastics and products. But also an unwelcoming place of backwardness and terror — the scene might play as if what matters most is Sauper's discomfort rather than the reasons behind those leaders' wariness. He cuts to black at the moment of greatest tension: Is the hero in terrible danger?
The good news is that Sauper immediately chucks such narrative convention. Thereafter he dives into exactly why he might be seen as unwelcome. The film is a tour of the Sudan just before and after the referendum that has split the country into two; mostly, Sauper is offscreen, letting the people he meets speak. We see villagers describing the many assaults against themselves and their livelihoods, first from militias and then from industry. We see the prefab offices of a Chinese oil company, where engineers talk blithely of how similar their experience in Africa is to that of science fiction astronauts seeking out resources to extract from far-off worlds. Brace yourself for horrible statements from a white man who makes a living blowing up leftover mines and bombs from the region's many recent wars: "There must be a reason they're still 200 years behind," he says of the Sudanese. (He also boasts that in his compound he has "three women" and several armed guards.) Equally disturbing: An evangelical couple, opening a school, describe the nascent Christian country of South Sudan as "New Texas" — president Salva Kiir Mayardit wears an American-flag pin plus a Stetson gifted to him by George W. Bush — and marvel that "The Toposas don't understand property ownership the way you and I do."
Those words prove especially haunting, later, when Sauper films a farmer baffled by a contract he's been given, signed by many officials, ceding his land to foreign investors. Or when another farmer tells us that, ever since the oilmen came, chickens and children die when they drink the water. Or when another evangelical responds to the complaints of some locals whose goats used to graze on land he's claimed: "You were here first, but now there's a fence around it, so..." He lets that "so" trail off, in the way Americans do when the conclusion they're building to seems so obvious that they can't even be bothered to speak it aloud.
All this is interspersed with marvelous, world-upending surveys of land and sea from the windows of that plane. But those moments of pain and revelation keep coming, all varied and surprising. These accrete into a mountain of evidence for Sauper's thesis: South Sudan might be new, but the forces shaping it are the same that have damned Africans for centuries — the rest of the world's lust for resources and conversions. That everything is beautiful just makes it hurt all the more.