Hubert Sauper's portrait of the Sudan's cruel new colonialism opens with a vision: In honeyed light a young boy, nude but for a beaded necklace, dashes down a sun-baked path. His smile is sweet and wide -- unless you're one of the American evangelicals we meet later, the ones committed to tugging shoes onto the feet of every African, this kid's joy will make you smile, too. Soon after, we see the toylike 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 -- when ever has the arrival of a white man been good for them?
The good news is that Sauper then dives in to 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 in two; mostly, Sauper is offscreen, letting the people he meets speak. Villagers describe various assaults, first from militias and then from industry. We see the prefab offices of a Chinese oil company, where engineers compare themselves to science fiction astronauts seeking out resources to extract from far-off worlds. Those moments of pain and revelation 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 makes it hurt all the more.