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By contrasting the historical backdrop to a series of modern horrors, Hubert Sauper’s documentary Darwin’s Nightmare proves a cautionary tale of human arrogance and folly. Sometime in the 1960s, an unknown party dumped a bucketful of Nile perch in Africa’s Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest freshwater lake, the source of the Nile River and speculated to be the birthplace of humankind. The perch, a voracious predator non-indigenous to the waters, has since nearly decimated the populations of over 200 other species of fish and otherwise wreaked havoc on an ecosystem that was thousands of years in the making.
Flash forward to the present and Lake Victoria is a rippling paradox, dying a slow death even as it brings forth 500 tons of fish per day for the fisheries that line the lake’s coast. The catch is primarily Nile perch, now grown to monstrous dimensions. (Largely absent other food sources, it’s taken to eating its own young for survival.) Meanwhile, above water, other kinds of savagery take place: Expensive perch fillets are exported to Europe and Japan while famine imperils the lives of almost 20 million Africans in Tanzania, which shares lake borders with Kenya and Uganda; impoverished Tanzanians scavenge the decaying fish carcasses from waste heaps, where they give off debilitating ammoniac gas. And then the film really turns grim.
Armed with a hand-held camera, Sauper and a lone assistant play a cinematic game of connect the dots that’s mind-boggling in its far-reaching indictment of globalization and its underpinning racism. The film, which has no voice-over and is threaded with sparse but informative title cards, opens with European planes landing at an airport in Mwanza, Western Tanzania, where the Russian and Ukrainian pilots have come to pick up a multiton shipment of fish. When Sauper asks the pilots, heads of the fishing industries and assorted African officials what gets brought to Africa in the planes, the answers range from “nothing” to vague mumbles about generic “cargo.” As it turns out, those planes are used to transport the weapons that have been used in Angola, the Congo and most other bloody conflicts in Africa over the last two decades. And in one of the film’s most powerful moments, a clearly troubled pilot looks into the camera and says gravely, “Africa brings life to Europe. It’s a source of food . . . I have to fly from Europe to Angola with big machines, like tanks. And after that, I go to Johannesburg to take grapes back to Europe. A friend told me, ‘Children of Angola receive guns for Christmas. European children receive grapes.’ ” He pauses for a moment, then says, simply, “That’s business.”
That business, as Sauper maps out, has tentacles that stretch from the World Bank and IMF to the prostitutes who work the camps that house the fishermen. Initially, the film seems scattered, disjointed. It skirts through so many topics and across so many scenarios — the impact of AIDS, Christian ministers proselytizing for their faith, African women who sell themselves cheap to the pilots, a middle-aged security guard who longs for war and the economic boon it brings, children brawling over a pittance of rice — that it takes a while for it all to crystallize into the cogent critique it eventually becomes. As we, like Sauper, discover that one injustice triggers and is interwoven with so many others, the effect is that of falling into a black hole of despair.
But for all its bleakness, Nightmare is a film that demands to be seen. In unflinching terms, it captures the hellish existence endured by the many so that the few may wallow in privilege. Its palpable outrage shakes the complacency from familiar knowledge, putting faces to leftist rhetoric. And while the charge of racism is aired (an African journalist observes, “Once Africans are perishing, Europeans benefit,”), Sauper makes it clear that greed and the pursuit of power cut across all color lines. In one scene, after watching a different documentary on the perilous condition of Lake Victoria, a roomful of African businessmen and politicians literally laugh off the warning, with one well-fed and obviously wealthy man announcing, “We are here for one common purpose. We are here to sell Lake Victoria.”
DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE | Written and directed by HUBERT SAUPER | Produced by EDOUARD MAURIAT, ANTONIN SVOBODA, MARTIN GSCHLACHT, HUBERT TOINT and SAUPER | Released by International Film Circuit | At Laemmle Music Hall
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