Florence Martin-Kessler, a documentary filmmaker and Anne Poiret, a filmmaker and investigative journalist embarked on the first of four trips to Juba in 2011. Juba is the soon-to-be capital of South Sudan. Their mission was to follow he “state builders.” The state builders are the people in the South Sudanese government and in the United Nations who would be on the front line of implementing, step by step, a road map for the world’s newest state.
Again and again, we heard about the “challenges” ahead. This was no understatement: the nascent nation had just a few short paved roads for a territory about the size of France; no infrastructure; no public services to speak of; no justice system, let alone law or order. The area was lush with weapons, rife with ethnic violence and in the midst of a tense divorce with its northern half.
Even in the best of cases, it can be a daunting task to carve new countries out of old ones. You don’t just draw new borders on a whim, especially in Africa. But in this case, the United States and the international community strongly supported South Sudanese independence. There were many reasons, not least a sense of moral obligation. The South Sudanese rebels were considered the good guys. They had been the underdogs, winning their war of liberation against an oppressive government in the Arab north. This was a historic moment. Who didn’t want to be on the right side of history?
As you’ll see in this Op-Doc video, we ended up filming everything we had hoped for: the deep joy of a people free and sovereign at last; the good intentions and hard realities of state building; and the “gray zone” — that murky area between peace and war that holds as much peril as promise. We also witnessed actions we could never have expected from the “good guys”: an incursion into the north’s territory, the loss of billions of dollars to corruption, the expulsion of a United Nations human rights officer and the recent downing of a United Nations helicopter. As one of the South Sudanese we interviewed put it: “My brother didn’t die for this.”
For years, the South Sudanese have chiefly defined themselves as not being northern Sudanese. But on the heels of such a long and devastating quest, people are asking themselves, “Is this all there is?”
Florence Martin-Kessler is a documentary filmmaker who has worked out of Bombay, New York and Paris. She was a 2011 Nieman fellow in Journalism at Harvard University. Anne Poiret is a filmmaker and investigative journalist based in Paris. In 2007, she won France’s most prestigious award for journalism, the Prix Albert-Londres. Their feature-length documentary “State Builders,” from which this Op-Doc is adapted, is produced by Quark Productions and will broadcast later this year on ARTE.
Via New York Times