Darwin’s Nightmare

Decades ago, Europeans introduced the predatory Nile Perch into the waters of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The perch, alien to the lake’s ecosystem, ravaged all the other species of marine life that had naturally evolved in Lake Victoria over eons. This per se is not the subject of Darwin’s Nightmare but merely a metaphor that Sauper develops in chronicling the exploitation of Lake Victoria’s human inhabitants by their European economic colonizers. The fishing and processing of the Nile Perch for the European market is at the heart of this exploitation, as, everyday, transport planes from Europe buzz into lakeside airfields where locals load them up with perch so that the planes can ferry them back to rich European nations where the fish are regarded as a haute couture delicacy. Sauper limns this metaphor immediately over his movie’s opening credits, training his camera on the shadow of a transport plane as it glides over the lake’s waters like a shark nosing in for a kill.

Indeed, both figuratively and literally, killing is the main order of business on the lake. The local fishing industry, involving in perch fishing, is geared predominantly for the European market. The locals are left to forage for scraps because the high-tech processing of these fish for consumption renders them too expensive to sell at the local markets. Meanwhile, the lakeside villages are left to fester in poverty and filth. Poverty, of course, breeds desperation, which, in turn, breeds anger and hatred. The latter are essential in fomenting regional antipathies and civil wars–both all too rife in today’s Africa–and, in Sauper’s most damning argument, something Europeans are also keen to exploit. A lengthy portion of Darwin’s Nightmare concerns the issue of guns, whole planeloads of them supplied by Europeans and ferried in by the pilots of these transport planes. These guns are distributed to regional militias like so much kindling to stoke the bonfires of local feuds. This vicious cycle keeps Tanzania’s fishing industry, along with its consumers and the transport pilots, all of them employed, paid, and well fed.

Sauper’s absolutely brave, unflinching camera, like a gutting knife, bares for view the unimaginable hardships in the locals’ lives. In their beleaguered yet resilient eyes, we sense a hope for change, but their words–their cracked voices–betray the sense of defeat that each of them feels. One moment, Sauper’s camera follows a group of children squabbling over a bowl of rice; in another, he fixes our gaze on other youngsters numbing themselves from their own lives by sniffing glue in an alleyway. An impoverished half-blind woman dries scraps of fish on racks in the sun, bracing herself from the toxic fumes emitted from fish scales; young boys dream of better lives, of not following in their father’s footsteps; prostitutes plying their trade among the Russian pilots holed up in the town in between transport runs speak of the rampancy of physical abuse. All are heart-rending to see and listen to, but Sauper’s most eloquent subject is a nighttime security guard–smiling, grizzled, handsome–who doles out the practical wisdom of doing what it takes to survive, whether it’s holding down a job or killing a man purported to be your enemy. To him, it’s all in a day’s work, swearing loyalty to whatever clothes and feeds you. Then, as world-weary as he is, his eyes light up as he contemplates a better future for his own son, far away from the lake.

At the end of the day, though, business is business. Sauper’s documentary stops short, rightfully I think, from indicting any single player in this cruel game–whether it’s the owners of the fisheries, the pilots of the planes, the EU leaders touting the lake’s resources–because each is simply jostling to survive. It’s a perversion, truly, of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but the mechanism involved is the same, and poignantly serves Sauper’s harsh allegory.

Grade: B

Directed by: Hubert Sauper
Written by: Hubert Sauper
Cast: Hubert Sauper (interviewer)

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