20 June 2005 | howard.schumann
This isn't Darwin's nightmare, it's our own
Slavery, colonization, genocide and civil war have marked the history of Africa. In Hubert Sauper's powerful documentary Darwin's Nightmare, we witness the latest humiliation -- globalization, euphemistically called the New World Order. Darwin's Nightmare is about fish, specifically the Nile Perch in Tanzania's Lake Victoria, but the theme is the exploitation of the natural resources of one country for the benefit of others. In this case, 500 tons of white fillets are caught each day, then exported to Europe to feed two million people each day while the villagers who cannot afford the perch are forced to live on the heads and carcasses that the factories have discarded. While the film is about fish, Sauper explains that he "could make the same kind of movie in Sierra Leone, only the fish would be diamonds, in Honduras, bananas, and in Libya, Nigeria or Angola, crude oil".
Because of over fishing, the Nile Perch was artificially introduced into Lake Victoria in the late 1950s but it was an experiment gone wrong. The Nile Perch became the lake's predator, destroying the existing species of fish, even devouring its young, and devastating the natural ecology of the lake. With the collapse of a stable economy, local fisherman and farmers became dependent on the export business and the result was famine, poverty, HIV, prostitution, and drug addiction. The director says, "It is so incredible that wherever prime raw material is discovered, systematically the locals die in misery, their sons become soldiers and their daughters are turned into servants and whores".
The film does not rely on narration to tell its story. It is told by the Russian pilots who bring in munitions to feed wars in Angola and the Congo, then return to Europe with tons of fillets destined for European markets. The story is told by a prostitute who sings lovingly of Tanzania and dreams of an education, by a guard at a processing plant who earns $1 a day and hopes for his son to become a pilot. Armed only with a bow and poison-tipped arrows, he welcomes the thought of a war. We also hear from a Christian minister who buries local residents who died of AIDS but still refuses to recommend condoms because it is a "sin". All seem powerless in a system that worships the wrong values. One Russian pilot, hoping that one day all the world's children will be happy says: "Children in Angola receive weapons on Christmas Day, European children receive grapes. That's business but I wish all children could receive grapes".
While some claim that the fish-packing operation raises the standard of living, the evidence is otherwise. Some may benefit but the workers earn starvation wages and the country is reported to be in the midst of a famine. Darwin's Nightmare takes a strong stand but does not preach even though its images are often painfully direct. One of the most memorable scenes is of an African woman standing in the sun among the rotting fish carcasses and maggots claiming that her life is better than others, even though one eye has been clearly destroyed by ammoniac gases. This isn't Darwin's nightmare, it's our own.