Previewing “We Come as Friends”

I’m looking forward to seeing — rather, getting provoked by — We Come As Friends when the local Film Society screens it in September.

Art is art. But I already see the film as an artwork of “narrative colonialism”, where the dominant story about South Sudan is still the story told by the West.

That’s how it appears from the trailer: the music that triggers a feeling of tension or drama, the West’s “confrontation” with China, the exotic dress and architecture of South Sudanese people, the Western stereotypes like the heavily accented American evangelist.

Oil companies, multinational institutions and Jesus freaks aren’t the real story in South Sudan. It’s like if you made a movie about democracy and business in the USA, and you focused on Donald Trump. He’s loud. He’s controversial. And he’s largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

There is much more going on South Sudan besides oil and USA-China geopolitics. South Sudanese know this. As the National Geographic points out, we’re all dead if we can’t find a way to inclusively and sustainably develop the natural resources of countries like South Sudan. Especially food resources.

The West needs to stop pretending like South Sudanese aren’t real people who want the same thing as them — a mediocre but minimally financially sufficient job that leaves enough time for leisure.

The movie seems to cast sensationalist tint over South Sudan. It fits in with popular Clooney/Prendergast initiatives like Satellite Sentinel and the newly announced Sentry, which watch and itemize the destruction of lives and property in South Sudan without any mechanism for actually stopping the violence.

What does such a movie accomplish? Watch! Get excited! Get angry!
And then…what?

Will this sort of story build bridges between ordinary Americans/Europeans and South Sudanese? Help them see one another as peers?

Will it make it easier for ordinary South Sudanese to run their farms or businesses, by getting them cash or tools or mentors?

Will it help the audience’s break out of this image African countries as unchangeably dangerous, exotic, alien landscapes full of strange characters?

Will it treat the South Sudanese like real people who want to live their lives, rather than figments of the narrator’s imagination?

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