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Austria 2004
Directed by
Hubert Sauper
107 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Darwin's Nightmare

Synopsis: In Lake Victoria in Tanzania the Nile perch is an exotic predatory fish that breeds in great numbers. Every day Russian planes fly in and leave with tonnes of the filleted fish destined for Europe. The creature that has destroyed the natural habitat has also spawned both a lucrative industry and a human rubbish heap.

If you were trying to locate Hell on Earth, Mwanza, Tanzania, aka Fish City, would be well worth considering, at least on the basis of Hubert Sauper’s devastatingly depressing view of it – homeless children fighting over handfuls of rice and sniffing the fumes of burnt plastic so that they can sleep (and unintentionally, be sodomised whilst doing so), a one-eyed women ankle deep in a slough of mud and maggots sorting through fish offal, happy to have a job even such as this, women prostituting themselves because their husbands have died of AIDS contracted from unprotected sex (thanks to the advice of the Christian pastor), Russian gun-runners, overfed Indian factory owners and purblind UN bureaucrats praising entrepreneurialism, and presiding over all. Heironymos Bosch could hardly have done better.

The giant Nile perch was introduced into Lake Victoria some 50 years ago and has since not only devoured every other species and destroyed the lake’s biodiversity but is now consuming its own young in what promises to be the final episode of a natural and social ecological tragedy.

Sauper’s film is too bleak to ever achieve a wide audience but it is a damning indictment of the self-indulgence and self-deception of Western consumerism and its complicity with and indeed, dependence on,Third World poverty. The filleted fish that constitutes Tanzania’s largest export industry is destined for the tables of middle-class Europeans. As a factory employee explains, none of the locals could afford to eat it. Drawing a broader bow, one of the Russian pilots ruefully explains that thanks to his activities, at Christmas children in Angola are given guns whilst in Europe they’re given grapes from South Africa.

The director does not narrate his film and uses only occasional inter-titles to briefly identify characters. The effect is as if we were present in person, trying on the fly, against the physical and language difficulties, to record conditions which are appalling to our Western sensibilities and yet at the same time to comprehend that for the people involved, this is life as they know it.

The gradual reveal of the horror is done brilliantly, Sauper, an experienced documentary maker, not only amassing a great variety of subjects and situations but seemingly having a talent for getting people to accept and ignore the intrusion of his camera and to respond to him openly. This material in turn has been cleverly edited into a chronicle that insightfully portrays not just the specifics of the place but what some may regard as the diabolical consequences of colonialism in Third World Africa, others a graphic example of human folly.

Although slightly overlong, Darwin’s Nightmare is a remarkable achievement that should be seen by all.




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