Ostensibly Darwin’s Nightmare is about the fish export trade that underpins Lake Victoria’s economy. An astounding 500 tonnes of Nile perch are caught here every day, filleted in factories around the lake, and flown out by vast Russian cargo planes to supply European dinner tables. The perch were introduced into the lake in the 1960s, although the film is vague about the exact circumstances. Once in the lake, this enormous carnivore proceeded to devour every native fish with such voraciousness that 4 decades on they are the only species left—an unmitigated ecological disaster that now provides Europe with a cheap, bountiful supply of fish fillets.
The owners of the filleting and packing factories around the lake have grown rich, while the workers and fishermen live a subsistence existence in the surrounding villages and towns. The area displays all the usual trappings of gross wealth disparity: prostitution, lawlessness, homelessness, a chronic lack of social and medical services, and rampant abuse—particularly of women and children. Sauper and his camera gradually sink into this world, lurching from one ghastly scene to another as if reeling from the sheer scale of the misery.
After the deceptive calm of the opening, we are quickly plunged into the grotesque urban settlements around Lake Victoria’s shores. We pass briefly through an antiquated airport control tower, but then Sauper leaves us disoriented, without the security of establishing shots or clear narrative bearings. It’s night and the picture is fuzzy. Homeless kids fight on unpaved streets and a choir busks, accompanied by a portable electric organ. Shadows lurk in doorways and faces loom out of the night. We meet an attractive young woman—a prostitute to the foreign pilots who fly into the town. Her attempts to sing a song of her homeland are interrupted by a drunken client leering into the camera. She is the first of many locals who drift in and out of the film, offhandedly telling tales of hardship, violence and abuse.
As Darwin’s Nightmare progresses, what initially seems like a sprawling, formless picture of life around the lake becomes a mosaic of impressions that slowly envelop the viewer in a suffocating horror so complete it takes on an almost surreal dimension. Within this impressionistic portrait, a network of gruesome symbioses slowly forms. The fish industry attracts poor farmers from Tanzania’s drought-stricken rural sector, who become underpaid fishermen or cheap factory labour. Those who can’t get work ensuring Europe’s supply of fish fillets live off the dregs that the First World rejects; hundreds of fish heads and stripped bones dumped in maggot-infested mounds every day. Sauper interviews one woman as she picks through the carcasses, hanging them out to dry so they can be sold in local markets. Maggots wriggle through her toes as she works. “My life is good” she proclaims; previously she was starving on an unproductive farm.
Similarly, the chemical by-products of the fish business find a use among those living in the factories’ surrounds. Street kids collect the discarded off-cuts of the packaging in which the fish are transported to Europe. They melt the plastic to create a viscous substance which, when sniffed, sends them into a sleep so deep they are sometimes raped without being aware of what’s happening.
Finally, a large sex industry services the cashed-up foreign pilots, as well as the local workers and fishermen. AIDS is rampant and the local church discourages the use of condoms. Many men infect their wives, who are forced into prostitution when their husbands become ill, thus perpetuating the epidemic.
The whole situation is such a graphic representation of Africa’s social, political and economic relationship to Europe that if it were created in fiction the viewer would recoil from the painful lack of subtlety. Yet throughout, Sauper hints there is an even darker side to all this wretchedness. He repeatedly asks interviewees whether the cargo planes whisking the fish off to Europe are empty when they touch down in Africa. In the film’s closing moments one of the pilots finally confesses they are importing arms that are distributed across the African continent, fuelling the endless civil conflicts in countries like Angola and the Congo.
Sauper’s understated handling of this scene distinguishes his work from the hysterical finger pointing of Michael Moore, or even the more reasoned polemics of filmmakers like Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed) and David Bradbury. Sauper sits with the pilot late at night and lets him tell his own story. The man seems a little drunk and obviously traumatised by the sights he has witnessed. He recalls a flight he made into South Africa one Christmas: “The children of Europe got grapes for Christmas day, the children of Africa got guns.” He pauses, staring ruefully at the floor. “I want to make all the children in the world happy. But I don’t know how.”
Darwin’s Nightmare leaves no position of distance from which the filmmaker, viewer, or even the film’s characters can vent righteous anger. The characters inflict misery on each other and, as the beneficiaries of this situation, we inflict misery on them. And the film offers no easy solutions to the institutionalised global inequalities that have shaped the lakeside milieu. As a local journalist points out to Sauper, to many Africans, UN officials and the like (and perhaps documentary filmmakers?) are just more Westerners reaping the benefits of African suffering. While their countrymen provide the armaments for African wars, aid officials draw comfortable salaries and build successful careers providing Band Aid solutions for the fallout of an economic system from which they will ultimately only benefit.
Sauper’s matter-of-fact, decentred presentation of life around Lake Victoria lifts Darwin’s Nightmare out of the realm of polemical social or political documentary and renders it something more akin to Alain Resnais’ Holocaust film Night and Fog (1955). Both are emotionally cool works about highly emotive subjects, confronting us with the awful truth that humanity’s worst forms of abuse are perpetrated by ordinary human beings performing quite banal tasks. Like the Holocaust, Tanzania’s fish industry is the result of calm and rational, albeit grossly inhuman, decision-making. But while the Holocaust was a clear-cut system of industrialised genocide, the situation on Lake Victoria is the product of a much more diffuse and pervasive global economic system in which we are all imbricated. However much we try to salve our consciences or live in blissful ignorance, we can’t change the fact that our Western affluence is built on the misery of the developing world. And as long as we continue to live in denial, the nightmare scenes depicted in Sauper’s film will continue to haunt our aspirational dreams of affluence.
Darwin’s Nightmare; director Hubert Sauper; producers Edouard Mauriat, Antonin Svoboda, Martin Gschlacht, Barbara Albert, Hubert Toint, Hubert Sauper; France/Austria/Belgium; 2004; distributed in Australia by Potential Films;
Darwin’s Nightmare was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Feature. Although screening in cinemas in the UK and France and promoted with large street posters, Darwin’s Nightmare had only a brief Melbourne theatrical release. It is available on DVD through Madman Entertainment. Eds
RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 19
© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org