If you really want the scoop on Sudan as it faces the chaos of partition, just jump in a plane and fly there. Not like George Clooney who — seen in a cameo in Hubert Sauper’s astonishing and often profound documentary “We Come as Friends” — flies with a retinue and an official escort. Instead, take off in a DIY aircraft powered by a motor scooter engine.
Accompanied by an assistant cameraman/copilot, Sauper (whose last film, 2004’s “Darwin’s Nightmare,” also featured Africa) drops out of the sky like the Little Prince, bumptious and naïve and eager to learn. As he makes plain in a voice-over like that in a collagist Chris Marker film, he had been inspired as a kid by “Star Trek” to seek out new worlds and to meet aliens.
But who are the real aliens? Doesn’t the impulse to explore invariably lead to colonialism and globalism and the untold miseries that wrack this planet?
Fortunately, except for a few lapses, Sauper does not wear his politics on his sleeve (he does however, have a captain’s insignia on his uniform epaulette, by which he cons his hosts into believing he represents something more powerful than himself). Instead, a fascination with serendipity, irony, and absurdity like that in Werner Herzog’s documentaries propels “Friends” into unexpected territory.
In one scene he visits some Texas missionaries who are troubled by the nakedness of the half-starved children running around. They make clothing a top priority, and put tiny white socks on one naked child, who wears them as he scampers about in the dirt.
In another scene, Sauper camps out with Chinese oil engineers in a sterile, secured compound. As they drink beer and discuss geopolitics, Sauper tells them they seem like aliens in a space ship. They laugh and play for him their DVDs of “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But Sauper’s plane strikes everyone as being truly absurd. Perhaps they underestimate it. Maybe it doesn’t represent neo-colonialism after all, but the power of cinema to incite change. One warlord laughs at the music box hanging in the cockpit. It plays the socialist anthem “The Internationale.”
★ ★ ★ ½
WE COME AS FRIENDS
Directed and written by Hubert Sauper.
At Museum of Fine Arts. 109 minutes.
Unrated (hypocrisy, neo-colonialism, missionaries, socialism, smoking and drinking).
In English, Chinese, French, and Arabic, with subtitles.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.