Sunday, May 4, 2014

“We Come as Friends” dir. Hubert Sauper, 2013 “Happiness” dir. Thomas Balmès, 2013


Screened as part of the 2014 San Francisco Film Festival Program, both films, each in their way, project the consequences of the neocolonialist program in Africa’s Sudan (Sauper) and Asia’s Bhutan (Balmès). And both films offer telling contrasts in terms of cinematic approach to time, to cutting and intercutting techniques, to cultural diversity, and narrative to bring their message home: neocolonialism is destroying indigenous cultures the world over in its frenzy to grab resources (Sauper) or new markets (Balmès) for its products. 

“We Come As Friends,” Sauper’s fast-paced accounting of the rape of recently partitioned Sudan delivers its message by intercutting images of indigenous people who have been pushed aside, whose land and water has simply been confiscated, whose children and animals are dying of drinking from poisoned wells, and who have been forced to camp in the burial place of the dead by the installation of a Chinese petroleum refinery, with an enterprise congress where, while Hilary Clinton is live streamed on a huge television screen, the West is represented at the feeding trough by porcine Caucasian faces, repeatedly reciting the mantra: “This is not about profit: we are here to HELP.” It is the kind of help indigenous people everywhere are learning to fear at great cost.

Sauper’s small mosquito of a plane, built expressly for the purpose of making the film, skims over the Sudanese savanna, dotted here and there with circular thatched huts, and clover-leaf compounds rarely seen from the air, landing on improbably bouncy landing strips, to catch the regional politician–puppet of the West, whose cowboy hat is George Bush’s emblematic gift, or to catch a U.S. ambassador delivering his pro forma clichés under the welcome shade of the White dignitaries’ canope while under the broiling sun Africans pay him absolutely no mind, intent on affirming their own chaotic dances in what they recognize is an occasion that is theirs to celebrate.

They cannot see the indifference of Chinese petroleum plant technicians who never make contact with them, and who work and live in sanitized compounds, dining in bullet-proof rooms; or fathom the arrogance of White contractors who have stolen their lands, their water, mineral, and foresting rights, with contracts written in a language they can neither speak nor read. It wouldn’t much matter if they could. The missionaries prove no contracts are needed when they build their ranch-model houses on goat-grazing land, enclose them with fences, and in response to native objections, declare that the natives just better get used to it.  After all, they are the Jesus-People-Come-to-Help.  And they talk The Word of God.

Most telling in this accordion folded mirror of opposing culture clashes is the visit Sauper pays to a missionary school.  School uniforms are de rigeur now, shoes, and military line-ups. The children who still wear native dress or come to school with native beads—as their people have worn for millennia—are simply beaten.  We are reminded of the U.S. Indian Schools designed to "take the Indian out of the man." Take the culture out of a people, and you rob them of their identity; you make it easier to rob them of their land and their resources as well.

Watching Sauper’s close ups of the eyes of starving tribespeople is an encounter with the stark face of genocide. What is rather telling is that in an interview he gives in January of 2014 on Democracy Now, Sauper avers that the missionaries are good people and gave him and his crew hospitality. But his comments at a recent Pacific Film Archive screening belie such an anodyne view. “I can’t exactly tell you to enjoy the film,” he waved at the sold-out audience, “but good luck.”

By contrast, Balmès’ “Happiness” is characterized by longer takes, in an adagio-like linearity of narrative continuity. Balmès takes full advantage of the formal announcement by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan in 1999 that to make “our people happy” Bhutan will now electrify the country so that its people can benefit from access to TV and to the internet. Actual footage of the royal proclamation and thousands of massed listeners prelude the film which is set far from Thimphu, the capital, in a small farming hamlet high in the Himalayas, where people trade, grow their own food, and herd yaks for milk, butter-tea, and wool. 

A widowed peasant woman and mother of five, tells her 9-year-old son that she cannot feed him or educate him and that she wants to take him to the monastery up the mountain to become a Buddhist monk and where he will be fed.  We see her deliver her son to the presiding lama, and help him don the monk’s skirt and shawl before she leaves. All this occurs with contrasting indoor and outdoor shots: indoor with tremendous virtuosity because the interior light appears entirely natural—even in the night scenes—and not to have been boosted; and the vast out-of-doors, the heart-stopping background of sharply rising hills, forested valleys, snow fields, and snow capped peaks.

The narrative unfolds slowly, moment by moment, each of the characters completely engaged in the concerns at hand:  tending the fire, flying a kite, jumping off a roof, holding onto the tail of a yak, spinning wool, reciting the sutras, cleaning votive lamps; time is measured in the slow increments of daily life. It has been enough for thousands of years. Until television arrives. We see the slow unspooling of power lines along the ridges, the erection of  electric poles, the work of surveyors, and bulldozer operators. And we see the desire of each peasant family to get a television set, to watch television, to charge less fortunate neighbors to watch it, too.

We follow the small boy who teams up with a neighbor on a trading expedition to Thimphu where a yak will be sold for money to replace a broken set with a super size screen nearly as big as the man who has to handle it and get it back to the village. We see the young boy’s delight at his first (and perhaps only ever) ride in a motorized van. And back in the village, Balmès concludes his essay.  It is night.  In hut after hut, we see the time-etched faces of these peasants illuminated by the flickering light: pink, green, purple, blue, with images of a place so foreign to them, they sit goggle-eyed and mesmerized, experiencing “happiness” at last. 

It is not necessary to take away a language. Just give a man a box and tell him it contains a life-time of magic, and you invade his life, his land, and his culture without arousing even a whimper.

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