Darwin's Nightmare

August, 2005, Documentary

Directed by:Hubert Sauper


The effects of globalization on the Third World are furiously examined in this award-winning documentary directed by Hubert Sauper. While the filmmaker's economic reach exceeds his grasp, he makes a stunning case for the necessity of probing the inter-related causes of poverty by focusing on a single industry in poverty-drenched Tanzania. While you may fault some of the film's conclusions, you'd have to skip seeing it altogether to miss its righteous anger.

Sometime in the middle of the 20th century, a predatory fish called the Nile Perch was introduced into the waters of Lake Victoria, the source of The Nile and the world’s second largest body of fresh water. Feeding on everything around it, (including its own young) the Nile Perch has destroyed dozens of other marine species in the lake with schizophrenic results; on the one hand, the Nile Perch has hopelessly destabilized Lake Victoria's ecological balance, with consequences yet to be determined; on the other hand, it's spawned a new commercial industry which now provides the majority of Tanzania's export income. Sprawling fisheries have grown up along the lake's shores, offering employment to thousands citizens in this impoverished country and fresh-frozen filets to various European markets. All things considered, is it a fair tradeoff?

Sauper's camera and soundtrack absorb the opinions of an extraordinarily varied number of the industry's winners and losers; factory owners, commercial fishermen, governmental officials, plant workers and even the Russian pilots who transport 50+ ton shipments of finished product to Common Market customers. In doing so, the director also provides a damning examination of each step in the industry's complex process. The results lend new meaning to the old bromide about not wanting to know "how the sausage gets made", especially when Sauper’s camera follows the disposal of the industry's refuse. Fish heads, tail and entrails, (crawling with maggots) are dried in the sun on open-air racks before being cooked over open fires and sold to Tanzanian locals who cannot afford to pay for the product shipped out of the country. 

But Sauper's investigation also takes note of the tertiary impacts of this unusual example of resource extraction. A woman handling the offal-on-its-way-to becoming food for the poor notes that her job is better than trying to farm in the country's interior, due to the virtual famine which holds the country in its grip. So fishing trumps farming; not surprisingly this has caused a migration of male laborers to the lake from the countryside. Separation from home impacts family structures; the plight of orphans and wives infected by their husbands' contacts with prostitutes conspire to make already harsh lives immeasurably more unendurable. To this Bosch-like mix, Sauper adds a final, horrific ingredient; the transport planes don’t fly empty into this impoverished country; rather than carrying badly needed goods for Tanzania’s citizens, incoming cargos contain smuggled black-market armaments, destined to feed the endless civil wars of Tanzania's neighbors.

Whether that final, crushing fact is as widespread a phenomenon as the director implies really makes little difference; but his assertion that the fishing industry is the cause of this daisy-chain of misery gets harder and harder to swallow as his camera juxtaposes the natural beauty of Tanzania's countryside with the grimy lives of its citizens at the farthest margins of destitution. The film wants to make the case that mindless, free-market globalization is the principle source of Tanzania's troubles, but after nearly two hours of heart-rending interviews and vignettes showing street kids fighting over handfuls of food and converting melted Styrofoam packaging into liquid form for use in low-cost glue sniffing, it's hard to adopt that rather simplistic point of view. 

The complex inter-action of (1) widespread poverty, (2) famine-like conditions which drive husbands and fathers farm from their homes to search for work, (3) the opportunity for wage-based jobs in the fishing industry at some distance from family and (4) the resulting explosion of AIDS spread by these men and their contacts with desperately-impoverished prostitutes all contribute to the downward spiral of the weakest Tanzanians even as the as a whole country unquestionably benefits in the short term. An ecologically disastrous industry (in the long term) continues to seduce Tanzanians in the short term . In one of the film's most telling scenes, a group of government bureaucrats politely rejects the presentation of an environmental study which shows the calamitous impact of Nile perch on Lake Victoria; like the now-vanished societies depicted in author Jared Diamond's "Collapse", the government of Tanzania seems perfectly willing to continue its headlong rush towards the inevitable result of its present strategy, hastening a time when the lake will no longer offer a harvest of any fish, which would plunge the country into an even more desperate situation than the one they're presently dealing with. 

 Darwin's Nightmare presents a deeply troubling yet mesmerizing examination of inadequately managed and regulated economic growth as well as a searing look at living conditions no human being should be forced to endure. The results are riveting, but definitely not for the faint-hearted.       

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