This is a very difficult film to write about because of its formal qualities, poised between documentary re-enactment and fiction feature, and because of its generic qualities as part biopic, part ‘journalist in war zone’ feel. It is true story about a young woman who pursued her dream and paid with her life. Finally its appearance in 2021 as part of My French Film Festival, after release in France in October 2019, coincides with news stories suggesting French unease about the calls for re-assessing imperialism and colonialism.
Camille Lepage was a young French freelance photographer aged 25 when she travelled to the Central African Republic in October 2013. Her first major African reportage had been carried out in South Sudan and she had already had her images used by major newspapers and other agencies. She spent her time in CAR meeting students, and young people generally, in the capital Bangui and when the civil war in the country started to get close to the capital she teamed up with a group of seasoned European journalists working for major outlets and photographed some of the action and its aftermath. At this point it was the Séléka, a Muslim rebel force that was attacking the capital. Intervention by French forces was expected and duly arrived. Camille went home to France for Christmas but was determined to return to Bangui, by which time the Christians had formed a new militia known as the ‘Anti-balaka’ and they were killing Muslims. Camille learned that the Anti-balaka were moving North from the capital towards the border with Cameroon. She joined their convoy and was killed instantly during an ambush. (This isn’t a spoiler, we learn of her death in the opening sequence.)
CAR is one of the poorest countries on earth. It has a low population density as a relatively large country with less than 5 million people but much of it is savannah and potentially productive and it also has some valuable mineral deposits with diamonds as the major export. Why is the country so poor and how does a civil war seemingly break out on religious difference lines when the Christian population is nearly 90%? I don’t know the answers to these questions but the country has had a difficult history since its ‘independence’, especially during the ‘Empire’ of Jean-Bédel Bokassa from 1966-79. Like several other countries in Central Africa that were created after the land grab by European powers in the late 19th century, CAR has little infrastructure and little contact with the outside world – except with France. Even the Chinese seem to be ignoring the country. The only evidence of an outside world comes via the trucks and motorbikes and the ubiquitous European football shirts.
Camille is the second fiction feature by director Boris Lojkine after his initial documentaries made in Vietnam. His first fiction film, Hope (2014) followed a young Nigerian woman and a young Cameroon man attempting to reach the Mediterranean after crossing the Sahara. Lojkine’s documentary experience seems to still be central to his work. Hope was shot by Elin Kirschfink and she also shot Camille. The new film is presented in a boxy 1:1.50 ratio caught between Academy (1.37:1) and the traditional French widescreen 1.66:1. The ratio derives from Lojkine’s decision to use ‘real’ photographs by Camille Lepage which are inserted at various points, freezing the action. Camille is played by Nina Meurisse, who does indeed convincingly represent the Camille we see in photographs shown at the end of the film. There are a couple of well-known French actors among the journalists (Bruno Todeschini and Grégoire Colin) and the photojournalist Michael Zumstein plays himself in the film – and was able to advise Lojkine and the rest of the crew. The African cast was all local and non-professional. Lojkine in the Press Notes tells us that he set up documentary workshops in Bangui and mentored ten young filmmakers who then became crew members on the shoot.
Camille’s story was ‘narrativised’ by Lojkine who created three individual characters among the students that she meets. This enables aspects of Camille’s story to be outlined more clearly through her relationships, i.e. in smuggling a character past a militia group or joining a family in mourning. The film certainly develops a convincing realist aesthetic, so ‘real’ in fact that I found it difficult to watch at times.
How to respond?
I’m not sure what I can say about the film. On one level it is a significant achievement in filmmaking with high quality photography and editing and strong performances. The ‘realism’ effects of the re-construction of events is very strong. The genre narrative of ‘journalist in a war zone’ is developed in two ways, firstly when Camille joins the experienced journalists in Bangui and travels with them to photograph the raids close to the city and secondly when she is back in France, trying to get a commission from a newspaper or discussing/defending her actions when quizzed by family and friends. Much of the time, however, Camille is on her own (i.e. not with other journalists) when she visits the militias or the families who have lost relatives in the civil war. In these circumstances we try to understand what she hopes to achieve. Reflecting on this later, I’m reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (UK-US 1997) and that element of several other journalism films which responds to the need for the individual to ‘do something’ like smuggle a refugee out of a war zone. Often Camille shows her genuine concern and her ability to find a means of both communicating and connecting with the people she meets. But this only goes so far and some of them eventually repel her. She believes in her journalistic purpose and that someone must record these shocking events, but many of her photos will not be seen. She lacks any kind of institutional support or indeed any one to ‘watch her back’. Her death in the circumstances seems inevitable.
The Civil War which started in 2012 is still not over eight years later despite the French military presence at various times. CAR seems similar to Chad and some of the other countries in the region – Sudan/South Sudan and the DRC. The European colonial boundaries established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries don’t reflect the many ways in which local communities have identities. French policies in the region are difficult to understand but they don’t seem to be working in terms of military interventions and trade relations. Stories like this definitely need to be told and young, compassionate journalists like Camille Lepage could be among those opening up the debates, but perhaps alongside African journalists? This film, as a biopic, places Camille centre stage in almost every shot. An African film might tell different stories. I do wonder if countries like CAR would benefit more by opening up to neighbours rather than remaining attached to the ex-colonial power. It would be good to see the (post)-colonial situation explored by African filmmakers.
I went into this screening with some trepidation. All I knew was that it was a documentary set in South Sudan. Would it be harrowing? Would I learn anything new? Could I cope at the end of a very long day? (Festivals can be a test of endurance – it isn’t always the best way to encounter films.) I needn’t have worried. This was the most surprising film I saw at LFF. It made me laugh and it made me cry and it started with Keith Shiri, the festival’s Africa expert, suggesting that the film might be about the “pathology of colonialism in Africa” – one of the topics that interests me most. The added bonus was that the director Hubert Sauper was present for the Q&A. He had several friends/’plants’ in the audience and he was on rip-roaring form. Eventually NFT2 had to throw us out as the building was closing.
The title ‘We Come as Friends’ is the age-old greeting of duplicitous invaders/occupiers/colonisers – whether in Africa or in an episode of Star Trek. It signals that this documentary is about the colonisers – though the science fiction angle is in there too. The linking agent in the narrative is the strange little ‘microlight’ aircraft that Sauper and his colleagues built with its “lawnmower engine” mounted on top of the parasol wing. This peculiar little aircraft is non-threatening and capable of landing virtually anywhere. (It flies slowly and not very high.) In this way Sauper and his crewmate Sandor landed in many unlikely places including a large Chinese oil installation as well as small villages across South Sudan. He also told us that he discovered that the trick was to have an official-looking pilot’s uniform with hat and epaulettes. Dressed like this, he was able to negotiate with military chiefs, politicians etc. – whereas in ordinary clothes he had previously been given the brush-off.
Sauper adopts a seemingly passive role as a documentarist, so that those he films and interviews allow their own arrogance/prejudicial views to come through without prompting. At other times he plants ideas and lets them develop (as in the Chinese oil base where he leads a group of Chinese into a discussion about science fiction films). His focus is always the colonisers and what they bring into South Sudan – and what they take away. Several remarkable scenes emerge. In one instance Sauper lands in a village where the local chief is about to sign away the community’s land rights in a lease lasting many years to an American-owned company for a paltry sum of money. The local man has no real idea of the value of the land or the quasi-legal status of the document. Sauper argues that these kinds of deals are being made all the time and it is very rare to see the actual documents which purport to legalise the theft of local resources. Sudan was the largest country in Africa before it was split in two in 2011 and South Sudan is still a country with rich reserves of exploitable resources and a relatively small population of around 8 million. It’s also a country where ecological damage is threatening wildlife habitats and rainforest resources.
In some ways the most terrifying group of people Sauper encountered were the American Christian evangelists who have arrived to ‘save’ the people with solar-powered talking bibles and clothing to cover the naked children! The European colonisers are still present in Africa as arms dealers and industrial developers but the Chinese and Americans are the most visible in this film and both these groups of neo-colonialists are as dangerous as the earlier European settlers and economic exploiters. This film should make any Western/’Northern’ audience uncomfortable about what we have done in the past in ‘underdeveloping Africa’. In the last couple of weeks ‘Big Pharma’ – the global drugs companies – have finally started to move on anti-viral drugs to fight ebola in West Africa. They wouldn’t move on this until the death toll rose to a high enough level to make the demand for drugs great enough to justify investing in research and production. The political crisis in South Sudan in December 2013 has led to 1.7 million displaced persons many of whom are starving as makeshift camps are ravaged by disease. So as agencies like MSF are trying to save lives and develop healthcare it is shocking to know that governments and major corporations are intent on stealing the resources of the poor. In one of the scenes in the film in a bar, a businessman/local politician is discussing the benefits of American investment while in the background the TV is showing Hilary Clinton making a speech about how American investment must ‘do good’ as well as earn profits. Sauper explained that broadcasts like this are repeated on a regular basis so it was relatively straightforward to have his camera available at the right time.
It’s very important that this film gets seen and talked about. It’s not didactic and its subtle approach worked for me. The film has won festival prizes all over the world and it has opened in cinemas in France and Austria, the two home countries of the production funders. I really hope it gets other releases. I presume that it will appear on some documentary television channels.
After the screening, the tiniest bit of research revealed my ignorance about Sauper and his colleagues. This is the third film made in Central Africa that Sauper has completed. Kisangani Diary (45 mins, 1998) investigates the plight of Rwandan refugees who fled to what was then Zaire. Darwin’s Nightmare (107 mins, 2004) is a film about globalisation and neo-colonialist exploitation of the resources of the Lake Victoria region where planes fly in with food aid and fly out with cash crops – and then return selling arms. If it is anywhere near as good as We Come as Friends I want to see it.
The excellent website for We Come as Friends is where you can begin to discover this remarkable filmmaker. There you will find this trailer and much more: