Premiering on Friday, August 14th in New York, two documentaries perfectly illustrate the unequal exchange between colonizer and colonized. To use a word coined by Malcolm X, “We Come as Friends” that opens at the IFC Theater highlights the “vulturistic” assault on the newly formed state of South Sudan by both the West and China in search of oil, cheap land and any other wealth that can be extracted in a 21st century version of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation. In contrast to the baleful impact of capitalist exploiters, “Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango” that opens at the MIST theater in Harlem (46 West 116th Street) reminds one of the beneficial legacy of Africa in the New World. While few people need to be reminded of how the music of slaves was essential to the emergence of jazz and the blues, “Tango Negro” proves that without the African drum, the seemingly purely European tango never would have been born. This is obviously a result of Buenos Aires being mostly Black in the 1830s and 40s according to the people’s history from below that this remarkable film features.
Although director Hubert Sauper describes “We Come as Friends” as cinema vérité, it is not of the Frederick Wiseman fly-on-wall-variety. Sauper’s presence is felt in every frame as he chats somewhat noncommittally with the aforementioned vultures—UN officials, Chinese oil refinery workers, Christian missionaries, and Texas biznessmen—reveal their desire to do well (profiting) by doing good in South Sudan. Although he has no speaking role in the film, the oleaginous visage of George Clooney is part of this rogue’s gallery.
Although I have never bothered to watch one of those idiotic “Making of” features on HBO that give you the lowdown on how some piece of crap Hobbit movie was slopped together, “The Making of ‘We Come as Friends’” would be something I’d give my eyeteeth to see (what are eyeteeth anyway?) Sauper flies from one location to another in a tiny single-engine plane named Sputnik that has room for a crew of three and that looks like something a strong gust of wind will blow it out of the sky. If you have the slightest inkling of what a project it is to get film made anywhere, the idea that “We Come as Friends” ever got made at all is miraculous as Sauper relates in the press notes:
At times, it was even challenging to find the basics – food, water, or a safe place to sleep. Some of the film crew fell deadly ill from malaria and tropical parasites. And my co-pilot, Barney, was shot at by a gang of ten armed men, disguised as fake police. This hold-up ended with two people dead, all our film equipment stolen and a whole house destroyed by bullets.
Throughout it all, Sauper retains his aplomb as he asks one scumbag after another what they expect to accomplish in South Sudan. So startling are some of the exchanges that you almost wonder if he convinced his interviewees to recite lines he gave them to look bad. For example, he is in the rec room for Chinese oil drillers as they are watching an old episode of “Star Trek”. They begin riffing on the idea of space exploration and the need to go to other planets with adequate weaponry so that when they are setting up for mineral extraction they will be able to fend off hostile aliens, thus evoking the plot line of “Avatar”. As is always the case in these scenes, Sauper expresses no outrage and simply asks them to continue. The end result is that they are hoisted on their own petard.
In contrast to the colonizers, the colonized are under no false illusions. Time after time, they recount their suffering and pessimism about “development” even as South Sudanese officials—the comprador bourgeoisie—blather on and on about the wealth that will accrue to their countrymen. One man promotes the idea that investors be given free land to build airports since it will provide jobs. When Sauper asks what kind of jobs, the man pauses for a second and then replies that airports need people to clean them.
In a scene that will remind you of how Manhattan was “sold” to the Dutch, an elderly tribesman shows Sauper a contract he signed without understanding what it meant. It allows a Texas company to have a lease in perpetuity on hundreds of thousands of acres that belonged to a group of native villages in order to “develop” the land and extract any minerals therein. Meanwhile villagers here and everywhere else that he visits are being evicted from land they lived on for a thousand years in some cases.
The film was the first time I had found myself thinking more deeply about what was happening in Sudan. As long ago as 2004, I had my doubts about the alliance between the USA and the rebels in the south who were trying to liberate their country from the admittedly oppressive Arab ethnic group that rule from the North. In a review of “Lost Boys of the Sudan”, I noted:
The SPLA became the beneficiaries of President Clinton’s largesse in 1996, when $20 million in military aid was sent to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, who were assisting the Sudanese rebels in much the same fashion as what took place in the mid 1960s. This was justified as part of the war on terror and had about as much basis in reality as this year’s war on terror. Just to show his dedication to Christian rights, Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical company in the country two years later.
In a reply to a couple of Clinton officials who were defending the bombing in the pages of the neoliberal New York Review of Books, Smith College professor Eric Reeves makes a point that sounds eerily similar to those that are being made continuously over the unilateralism that was on display in Iraq:
More consequentially, Benjamin and Simon give no sign of having considered the real issue in the al-Shifa episode; they never seriously ask what evidentiary standards should have obtained to justify an attack on Khartoum. Instead, they vaguely declare that “the perception of imminent danger was sufficient to overcome these concerns” (i.e., concerns about attacking a country on the basis of clandestine information in pursuit of “a strategy of preempting threats”).
Around this time, the Sudanese rebels became the favorite cause of Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who has been spending the past six months or so it seems castigating the Cuban government for repressing dissidents. Many of his columns were focused on the alleged enslavement of Christians:
Actually, when I started writing about the slaves of Sudan in the Voice about six years ago, the beginning of the New Abolitionist movement was driven by the American Anti-Slavery Group, headed by Charles Jacobs, who first told me of the horrors in Sudan.
“There was also a young graduate student at Columbia University, Sam Cotton, who traveled to black churches and newspapers around the country to spread the liberating word. In Denver, Barbara Vogel told her fifth-grade class that slavery was not dead, and those kids began collecting money to free slaves in Sudan through Christian Solidarity International. Other schoolchildren around the country joined in.
There is not so much attention paid nowadays to the problem. This might be a consequence of John Garang’s manipulation of do-gooders anxious to purchase the freedom of Sudanese slaves under false pretexts. A February 26, 2002 Washington Post article reported:
The highly publicized practice of buying the freedom of Sudanese slaves, fueled by millions of dollars donated by Westerners, is rife with corruption, according to aid workers, human rights monitors and leaders of a rebel movement whose members routinely regard slave redemption as a lucrative business.
“The more children, the more money,” said Mario Muor Muor, a former senior official in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the leading southern rebel group in Sudan’s 19-year-old civil war. Insiders say that SPLA commanders and officials have pocketed money paid to buy captives’ freedom and in some instances stage-manage the transactions, passing off free southerners as slaves.
However sordid all this might be, the Christian people of the south deserve the best. One can only hope that oil proceeds are truly used for the benefit for the entire country and that people like Peter and Santino can enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future in their homeland.
As it turns out, I was overly optimistic as is so often the case with Marxists. As the film amply demonstrates, the humanitarian cause that people like George Clooney took up was a velvet glove concealing the iron fist of colonialism. If you want to get an idea of what is happening today in South Sudan (besides seeing this truly remarkable film), I urge you to read Nick Turse’s article in TomDispatch.com:
When South Sudan broke away, it took much of Sudan’s oil wealth with it, becoming sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola. In taking those resources out of Bashir’s hands, it offered the promise of more energy stability in Africa. It was even expected to serve Washington’s military aims — and soon, the U.S. began employing South Sudanese troops as proxies in a quest to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army.
That was the dream, at least. But like Washington’s regime change and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, things soon started going very, very wrong. Today, South Sudan’s armed forces are little more than a collection of competing militias that have fractured along ethnic lines and turned on each other. The country’s political institutions and economy are in shambles, its oil production (which accounts for about 90% of government revenue) is crippled, corruption goes unchecked, towns have been looted and leveled during recent fighting, the nation is mired in a massive humanitarian crisis, famine looms, and inter-ethnic relations may have been irreparably damaged.
On a happier (if not joyful) note, “Tango Negro” is a celebration of Black culture in places where few suspected it existed. If the distinctly non-African sound of the bandoneon (an accordion) puts a white stamp on this deeply nostalgic musical and dance form, Juan Carlos Cáceres, who is the star of this film and who died in April of this year at the age of 79, demonstrates that the rhythm is distinctly African.
Cáceres was a man of many talents. He came to Paris just before the May-June events of 1968 as an accomplished artist and musician. But not long afterwards, he began a career as a musician and musicologist with a focus on the culture of the Río de la Plata that flowed between Argentina and Uruguay. It was along this riverbed where most people of African descent, both free and enslaved, made home. He became an expert in playing and analyzing the distinct art forms of the region, including the tango, the milonga and candombe. The candombe is as closely related to native African ritual performances, as is the rumba in Cuba or the samba in Brazil.
As a pioneer of the study of the African roots of the tango and an able performer, Cáceres is an ideal personality to weave together all the different strands of this story. He performs with many younger musicians, including at the climax of this stunning film an Argentine woman who is a descendant of slaves and a passionate defender of Afro-Argentine culture. She sings as Cáceres plays the piano with a troupe of white and Black musicians ending the film on a rapturous note.
The film was directed by Dom Pedro, an Angolan, and will enrich the brain as well as the heart. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen the new Harlem with its excellent assortment of restaurants and other varieties of nightlife, this is a good place to start.