A movie directed by Christopher Quinn
The local population fishes for food in Tanzania's Lake Victoria, but remains on the brink of starvation as the fish they catch is shipped off to Europe. Filmmaker Hubert Sauper takes a look at their plight in this documentary.
Darwin’s Nightmare, written and directed by Hubert Sauper, is misnamed because the heart of the argument isn’t based on animal hierarchy and natural resources but on Social Darwinism, an idea that misuses the concepts of natural selection by trying to place it within an advanced human societal milieu.
“All happy families are the same” as Mr. Tolstoy says. Given this, it is very rare for someone to make a documentary about happy people or a happy situation. So we are stuck with documentaries that raise awareness of one problem or another. I think this camp is divided into three categories: historical (nothing to be done, either just pure history or a warning against doing it again), socially relevant (these bring attention to a situation that could be fixed given the right amount of energy and circumstance), the last is what I call bleak (here’s a ton of information about something truly terrible, and guess what, there isn’t thing one you can do about it). Darwin’s Nightmare is the archetype of the last sort.
Tanzania has created a crisis. The country used to be agricultural. (I will avoid the G word and just focus on the issues covered in the film.)
Tanzania’s economy is now dependent on fish, apparently totally dependent. A non-native, but enormous fish was introduced to Lake Victoria. Now the natural balance is nearly destroyed and is in danger of running out of oxygen or just becoming too toxic for any fish. However this means it is possible to trade with Europe. Planes arrive either empty, ready to carry fish back, or loaded with weapons to be used in various African wars (particularly the apparently never-ending civil war in Angola). Since Tanzania’s economy no longer seems to support any kind of terrestrial agriculture, it has almost stopped altogether. This means, naturally that there is famine in Tanzania outside the immediate ambit of Lake Victoria.
This is the most disgusting film I have ever seen; if there is another that is worse, I don’t want it in my house. There are no plot spoilers because there is no plot; however there is an analysis warning: if you are easily made queasy, don’t read further and certainly do not watch this film.
There seems to be three bands of affluence spreading out from the lake. The first is the lake, the fisherman, and those whose businesses that handle the fish or cater to those involved in the fish trade. The second are the ones that create the nightmare, the third is only mentioned, never shown—victims of the famine.
The film tells the story of the second band. Permit me a brief aside to put this band into perspective. I think most of us have seen people in various countries whose divide between wealthy and extremely poor is astronomical. We’ve seen adults and children picking through garbage for things either to eat or sell. I wouldn’t want to meet someone for whom this is not horrific.
What happens to the second band in Tanzania is magnitudes worse. The economy is built on fish, so the processing plants filet the fish, then toss the bones with the head still attached. Here, those forced to scavenge gather up the offal. They have to sun-cure the heads and bones so they are at least not too filled with disease so they can be eaten. Mr. Sauper does something in this sequence that makes it far more difficult to watch than is probably necessary (it is already disgusting enough); he enhances the sound so that the fleshy sound of placing what is left of the fish on curing racks and, of course, the buzzing of untold numbers of flies. I have an iron stomach and I was heading toward the bathroom.
Darwin’s Nightmare presents this dire situation and offers nothing else. The audience is not given an organization to contact. We are not informed of the companies that use the fish so we can boycott. There is nothing at all but the horror of the situation. So I nearly yacked my guts out for no reason at all.
In a sense, this is the same situation that I covered in The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. In that movie we are told of monstrous amounts of waste and of malfeasance from a passel of companies. Great. There isn’t a single company on the list that we can force to change anything. Blackwater (so often in the news now for being, apparently, eager to shoot anything) provides security for governmental officials and others. Other than divesting stock (if you have any and can do that), there isn’t a thing you or I can do about it.
It is difficult not to view documentaries that offer nothing by way of solution as exploitative. Mr. Sauper shows us a society whose economy is about to dissolve and the lake upon which it depends becomeing toxic. Not only have they destroyed the culture, they have destroyed a massive amount of fresh water. This leaves me with just one question: what now (and this is just one step above “so what” since I can’t do a dämned thing about it)?
I am a male. Present a problem to me and I will seek to solve it (unless the problem consists of asking someone for directions—I think too many people misunderstand the motivation behind this, but that is for a different essay). Darwin’s Nightmare presents problem after problem ad nauseum (literally). So it is not only, quite frankly, gross it leaves me feeling useless.
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