2005, NR, 107 min. Directed by Hubert Sauper.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 20, 2006
Consider the Nile perch: The source of white fish fillets for most of the European dining establishment, this non-native species was introduced by persons unknown into the world’s second largest freshwater lake – Tanzania’s Lake Victoria – some 40 years ago. Since then, the fish, which is a voracious predator, has devoured every other living thing in the lake’s 67,850 square kilometers, including its own young, thereby ensuring the eventual destruction of one of the planet’s most expansive ecosystems. Conversely, a mammoth and monstrously profitable industry has grown up on the shores of the lake, fueled by the World Bank, rampant Western globalization, and the cheap labor provided by the lakeside populace, who subsist on the perch’s gutted, maggoty carcasses and live in a hellish state of self-perpetuating squalor so bleak as to demand another circle in Dante’s hellscape. Darwin’s Nightmare explores the myriad interstitial connections, the causes and the effects, and the end result of globalism on the people it was presumed to help. The prognosis is beyond ghastly, moving via Sauper’s exhausting interviews with the local populace, workers, factory management, prostitutes, the Western industrialists, and, most tellingly, the pilots of the massive Russian-made cargo planes that fly out tonnage after tonnage of Nile perch fillets every single day. Which prompts the question: What do they fly in? Sauper returns, over and over, to this simple query, unearthing varying responses, until, late in the film, the truth is mumbled by an obviously drunken and shamefaced Russian pilot: The planes bring in weapons and other ordnance for Africa’s countless war zones. In short, they ferry in death to the birthplace of human life before returning to the West with the lifeblood of not only Lake Victoria but, in many ways, the continent itself. Darwin’s Nightmare is a muckraking masterpiece far removed from but very much akin to the documentary journalism of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA and George Ratliff’s Plutonium Circus. Like the latter, it examines, in minute detail, and with the steady albeit jaundiced gaze of a fly-on-the-cemetery wall, the relationship between a homogenous local population reliant on the whims of a large and morally questionable government-sanctioned enterprise. Sauper’s film is far more than just a cinematic exposé of the West’s African skullduggery; it’s also a masterful work of art, rife with visual metaphors (including the opening sequence, in which a lone Tanzanian airport flight controller virtually ignores directing an inbound jet in favor of swatting a bee that’s buzzing around his cramped control shack) and images of such shockingly banal despair that they short-circuit our notion of reality. Local children getting high on the fumes of the Nile perch’s plastic packing containers (only to be raped or beaten), young girls forced by circumstance into prostitution with the vodka-obliterated cargo pilots, the mountains of flyblown, fishy carrion that feed the locals – they’re all part of the threadlike social connections in this imbroglio of Western globalism. Sauper’s delicately horrific documentary is a short, sharp slap in the face of the developed world, and a long overdue one at that. (AFS@Dobie)