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.”
That kind of compassion and mutual recognition is a constant in Sauper’s work, be it a student short on circuses or his two films on African circles of hell. Though Darwin’s Nightmare concerns the global forces that have converged in one place, Lake Victoria in western Tanzania, Sauper is no muckraker. “I’m not out to prove anything,” he argues when asked why he doesn’t show piles of corpses. “Switch on CNN and you can see that. It’s not my work to prove things to you, to show that there are poor people in Africa or that prostitutes are dying of AIDS. I don’t want to start proving things. I want to connect things you might not have connected.”
Sauper does that, sure, but he does something far more important: He makes the real people of Darwin’s Nightmare inhabit the imaginative space of fiction, and he makes us empathize with them in the way that normally only drama can pull off. He connects us to them with great specificity: When the final credits roll, every single person is identified by first name and surname, even the kids sniffing glue in the streets. And he carries out his casting with care. “I do a lot of work to choose who I’m going to use as a character in the film,” he says. “Before you see Rafael [a night watchman] with his poison stick, I’ve already spent two years getting to know him, telling him about my life, explaining why I’m in Africa, what I’m afraid of. I tell him all this, and finally the point comes when he or the Russian pilot [another major character] also wants to tell his story.” It’s then that Sauper turns on his camera. “I am filming my own relation to those people, my connection, my own fascination.”
The title Darwin’s Nightmare refers to a cannibalistic predator, the Nile perch, that has taken over Lake Victoria. It seems an inevitable focus, but Sauper sees it differently: “I followed the thin red line of the fish,” he says. “But I could have followed the commerce of diamonds or crude oil or gold. For a movie, the fish is more effective, because it hits your stomach. You don’t eat crude oil. Filming fish is more rewarding for a filmmaker.” Sauper has a glint in his eye, but he sighs. “People ask me, how can you keep on living after seeing such terrible things? But it’s the other way around. I have the best life! You can’t imagine. I look for things that some people don’t want to see, and from these impressions, I make my own expression.”
Hubert Sauper has made enemies in high places — the Tanzanian government sees the film as an attack on its country, and the fisheries bureau is furious that Sauper focused his camera on its night watchman instead of its CEO. But as long as he keeps making friends where no one else cares to look, and treating them with respect, he will be unstoppable. Having completed the first two parts of his planned African trilogy, he’s currently back in Paris, his home base, raising money — something the success of Darwin’s Nightmare makes a little easier — for a third. I’ll be waiting.?