By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Hubert Sauper has been a well-known name in Europe ever since his magnum opus, Darwin’s Nightmare, won the European Film Award for Best Documentary in 2004. Now the film is nominated for an Oscar and the U.S. is finally catching up.
Sauper does not appear in his own documentaries. He’s no Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore, hogging the frame to brand his vision. Instead of his face, he pours his heart and wisdom into Darwin’s Nightmare, infusing it with a degree of empathy and compassion rarely encountered in contemporary documentaries. In the human-rights corner of nonfiction filmmaking, where docs usually rely on shocking revelations to do the job, his poetic lyricism is even rarer. More than an exposé, more than an anti-globalization screed, Darwin’s Nightmare is a cinematic Homeric ode, shot with a tiny consumer-grade Sony camera in four years of trips back and forth to Tanzania.
So it was, with no clue to his identity, that I awaited Sauper one rainy January night outside a San Francisco theater hosting a private screening of his film. What exactly was I looking for? “People expect to see an introverted intellectual, perhaps with a cigarette, depressed,” Sauper laughs once we’ve met. It’s a joke. Young and lively — forty going on twenty — simply dressed and light on his feet, he’s a human with the antennae of an insect, poised to listen, trained by life to observe. But he’s also clearly a man who loves life. “I like to dance, to drink beer with my friends,” he says. And to eat big plates of pasta, judging from the time we spend together. In short, Sauper isn’t just an observer of the world around him, but a participant in it. Indeed, Sauper brings such a contagious enthusiasm to everyone and everything he encounters that you immediately understand how he was able, in the most difficult conditions imaginable, to capture his intimate interviews with Darwin’s Nightmare’s unforgettable subjects.
Sauper first went to the Congo in 1997, by accident. “My friend Laurence was trying to ride his bicycle from Tel Aviv to Cape Town, but he broke down in Dar es Salaam. He phoned me and said, ‘Hubert, come down here and make a documentary!’?” So he did. Kisangany Diary(1997), shot near the spot where Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness, is as stark a vision of refugees and the horrors of war as you’re likely to find anywhere. Of it, legendary French documentarian Jean Rouch wrote: “This is not just another white man’s view of Black Africa. His camera helps us to see.”
And — he might have added — to feel. Darwin’s Nightmare, Sauper’s second film, leaves its audiences so devastated that some have complained it can’t work as an activist tool because it’s too depressing. “I think those people were already depressed before they saw my film,” says Sauper, who proceeds to rattle off facts and figures about arms-trading in Africa, environmental devastation and social collapse. “The biggest wars are in the center of Africa, not Iraq. A million people are dying in the center of Africa from the direct consequences of war, the arms are coming mostly from Western and Eastern Europe, and they’re not illegal. These people you see in the film are just doing their job, just making deliveries. They’re like taxi drivers.”
Sauper wasn’t born to this work, or to this outrage. A native Austrian, he spent an idyllic childhood climbing mountains in the Tyrolean region (near Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hometown), where his family ran a hotel for seven generations. The oldest son, Hubert had been given his father’s name and was expected to carry on the tradition. But “every time a painter or journalist came to stay at the hotel, I’d become his friend. I was so thirsty for something outside, far away,” he recalls. At 19, he was sent to Santa Barbara for hotel training. He got himself a convertible, a tan, and an Italian girlfriend: “I was such a European cliché.” Then a cousin back home sent him a book by Andrei Tarkovsky. “There I was, sitting on the beach, reading about the rain in Russia. And suddenly I wanted that rain!” That cousin helped him apply to the University of Vienna’s new film program, and by 21, Sauper had refused his hotel destiny, heading instead to Paris to continue his film-school training. His father disowned him. (Today, the cousin is a scientist, while the disappointed father has given up innkeeping to be a writer — one who’s proud of his son.)
Sauper remembers the moment when he realized his vocation: “It was the second or third year of film school, when for the first time I understood that this type of work conditions and structures your life in a way that I really liked.” He was making a student film about a tiny circus with a couple of past-their-prime lions touring the Austrian-mountain circuit. Sauper was fascinated by and felt pity for the circus director, as broken-down as his animals, until the man asked Sauper if he was in film school and in need of a budget for his film, then proceeded to hand him a big roll of bills. “Then I found out that he felt pity for me.”
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