Hubert Sauper - Darwin's Nightmare (2004)

IMDB writes: A documentary on the effect of fishing the Nile perch in Tanzania's Lake Victoria. The predatory fish, which has wiped out the native species, is sold in European supermarkets, while starving Tanzanian families have to make do with the leftovers.

NY Village Voice review by Dennis Lim:
The Descent of Man: Essential doc views globalization through prism of Tanzanian eco-disaster, sees colonialism.
August 2nd, 2005 4:16 PM

The Nile perch was introduced to Lake Victoria some 40 to 50 years ago, an apparent attempt to replenish the overfished waters that led to the extinction of hundreds of indigenous species. An oily-fleshed fish that reaches over six feet in length, the Lates niloticus rapidly emerged as the fittest specimen in its new habitat, depleting the food supply and preying on smaller fish (including its young). In a 2001 report, the World Conservation Union deemed the Nile perch one of the planet's 100 "worst invasive alien species." This ongoing ecological disaster happens to be the basis for a multimillion-dollar business: Tanzania, which owns 49 percent of Lake Victoria, is the main exporter of perc to the European Union. Bitter ironies come thick and fast in Hubert Sauper's essential documentary Darwin's Nightmare, and the most obvious one may be that this unnatural abundance of a profitable protein source—an economic godsend, if you ask the on-message factory managers and government officials—coexists with inhuman levels of famine and poverty.

Quietly outraged and actively upsetting, Darwin's Nightmare spirals out from a case study of one cannibalistic killer to a far bigger and more rapacious fish. The ruthless supremacy of the Nile perch and its devastating effect on the lake's ecosystem constitute a gruesomely resonant metaphor for the impact of global capitalism on local industry. From intimate camcorder interviews with fishermen, fishery workers, cargo pilots, and the prostitutes and street kids on the fringes of this lakeshore economic network, Sauper, an Austrian-born, Paris-based documentarian, constructs a detailed seismograph of predatory free trade's ripple effect.

At one point, after viewing a cautionary video about Lake Victoria at an ecological conference, a Tanzanian minister blithely accuses the filmmakers of accentuating the negative: "What about the beautiful areas?" It's safe to assume he would take greater exception to Darwin's Nightmare, a crescendo of dismay that uncovers fresh horrors in almost every scene. Each appalling revelation is topped by a ghastlier one. Not only do the fishermen live in work colonies with no medical care and easy access to HIV-positive prostitutes (a pastor Sauper interviews gently discourages condom use), they're sent home to die before they get too ill, due to the prohibitive cost of corpse transport. Not only can most Tanzanians not afford the thick white perch fillets that are consumed by millions of Europeans daily, they're forced to literally pick on the rotting remains.

Darwin's Nightmare finds its most Brueghelian images at a sort of open-air factory, where ammonia-emitting, maggot-swarmed perch carcasses are dried and fried, repackaged as a local subsistence food. And in an even grimmer form of recycling, the factories' leftover packing materials are collected by children who melt down the plastic and inhale the fumes.

Sauper avoids voice-over and uses sparing titles, but there's no mistaking the film's point of view. In one unapologetic gut-punch sequence, he cuts from the fish dump, where an employee partially blinded by ammonia attests that her life has improved since she started working there, to a European trade delegation droning on about the perch industry's improving infrastructure and cleanliness standards, and in turn to footage of young boys fighting over a few mouthfuls of rice. The film returns repeatedly to the visual motif of Russian cargo planes taking off and landing over Lake Victoria—Sauper at first seems to be making the point that they leave heaving with crates of fish (the wrecks of overloaded planes still dot the airstrip) and fly in empty, a symbol of the take-and-take relationship that the West has long dictated with Africa. But the gradually divulged reality proves worse still: Many of the planes arrive loaded with the weapons that sustain the bloody conflicts raging nearby.

Praising Sauper's Kisangani Diary, an account of Rwandan refugees in the Congo, the ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch used the phrase "a cinema of contact." Darwin's
Nightmare likewise benefits from Sauper's proximity with his subjects, some of whom possess a big-picture understanding of their plight that is of no practical use to them. Perhaps the film's most vivid figure, Raphael, a night watchman with bloodshot eyes, notes that war, besides profiting the powerful, is also an appealing financial option for those lucky enough to join the army. Darwin's Nightmare strings together cruel ironies into a work of harrowing lucidity. It illuminates the sinister logic of a new world order that depends on corrupt globalization to put an acceptable face on age-old colonialism.

NY Timez review by A.O. Scott:
Feeding Europe, Starving at Home
Published: August 3, 2005

"Darwin's Nightmare," Hubert Sauper's harrowing, indispensable documentary, is framed by the arrival and departure of an enormous Soviet-made cargo plane at an airstrip outside Mwanza, Tanzania. The plane, with its crew of burly Russians and Ukrainians, will leave Mwanza for Europe carrying 55 tons of processed fish caught by Lake Victoria fisherman and filleted at a local factory. Though Mr. Sauper's investigation of the economy and ecology around the lake ranges far and wide - he talks to preachers and prostitutes, to street children and former soldiers - he keeps coming back to a simple question. What do the planes bring to Africa?

The answers vary. The factory managers say the planes' cavernous holds are empty when they land. One of the Russians, made uncomfortable by the question, mutters something vague about "equipment." Some of his colleagues, and several ordinary Mwanzans, are more forthright: the planes, while they occasionally bring humanitarian food and medical aid, more often bring the weapons that fuel the continent's endless and destructive wars.

In any case, they leave behind a scene of misery and devastation that "Darwin's Nightmare" presents as the agonized human face of globalization. While the flesh of millions of Nile perch is stripped, cleaned and flash-frozen for export to wealthy countries, millions of people in the Tanzanian interior live on the brink of famine. Some of them will eat fried fish heads, which are processed in vast open-air pits infested with maggots and scavenging birds. Along the shores of the lake, homeless children fight over scraps of food and get high from the fumes of melting plastic-foam containers used to pack the fish. In the encampments where the fishermen live, AIDS is rampant and the afflicted walk back to their villages to die.

The Nile perch itself haunts the film's infernal landscape like a monstrous metaphor. An alien species introduced into Lake Victoria sometime in the 1960's, it has devoured every other kind of fish in the lake, even feeding on its own young as it grows to almost grotesque dimensions, and destroying an ancient and diverse ecosystem. To some, its prevalence is a boon, since the perch provides an exportable resource that has brought development money from the World Bank and the European Union. The survival of nearly everyone in the film is connected to the fish: the prostitutes who keep company with the pilots in the hotel bars; the displaced farmers who handle the rotting carcasses; the night watchman, armed with a bow and a few poison-tipped arrows, who guards a fish-related research institute. He is paid $1 a day and found the job after his predecessor was murdered.

Filming with a skeleton crew - basically himself and another camera operator - Mr. Sauper has produced an extraordinary work of visual journalism, a richly illustrated report on a distant catastrophe that is also one of the central stories of our time. Rather than use voice-over or talking-head expert interviews, he allows the dimensions of the story to emerge through one-on-one conversation and acutely observed visual detail.

But "Darwin's Nightmare" is also a work of art. Given the gravity of Mr. Sauper's subject, and the rigorous pessimism of his inquiry, it may seem a bit silly to compliment him for his eye. There are images here that have the terrifying sublimity of a painting by El Greco or Hieronymus Bosch: rows of huge, rotting fish heads sticking out of the ground; children turning garbage into makeshift toys. At other moments, you are struck by the natural loveliness of the lake and its surrounding hills, or by the handsome, high-cheekboned faces of many of the Tanzanians.

The beauty, though, is not really beside the point; it is an integral part of the movie's ethical vision, which in its tenderness and its angry sense of apocalypse seems to owe less to modern ideologies than to the prophetic rage of William Blake, who glimpsed heaven and hell at an earlier phase of capitalist development. Mr. Sauper's movie is clearly aimed at the political conscience of Western audiences, and its implicit critique of some of our assumptions about the shape and direction of the global economy deserves to be taken seriously. But its reach extends far beyond questions of policy and political economy, and it turns the fugitive, mundane facts that are any documentary's raw materials into the stuff of tragedy and prophecy.

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