Reviews and notes
2004 Venice, Toronto, London
2005 New Directors/New Films
The West's plundering of the natural resources of Third World countries may not be a new story, but Austrian director Hubert Sauper's compelling documentary succeeds in revealing the subject in a memorable new light. Focussing on the fishing community of Mwanza on the shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Darwin's Nightmare
follows its impoverished inhabitants who export their catches to Europe and Japan in return for Russian cargo planes full of arms and ammunition destined for civil wars in neighbouring countries.
- Tom Dawson, BBC, 29 April 2005
Austrian documaker Hubert Sauper focuses on the ripple effect of a globalized economy in a specific microcosm to weigh the casualties of the New World Order in Darwin's Nightmare
. Somewhat haphazardly organized yet fascinatingly detailed and enriched by the candor and dignity of its shockingly deprived interview subjects, this sobering story of life in a fishing community on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania should springboard from festival slots into cultural film forums and public broadcasters' schedules worldwide.
Hatched out of Sauper's research for Kisangani Diary
, his 1997 docu about refugees from Rwanda caught in the Congolese rebellion, the new film identifies the catalyst for chaos as an eco-upset of the 1960s that's still reverberating today.
As a minor scientific experiment, a bucketful of Nile perch were introduced into Lake Victoria, birthplace of the Nile and the largest tropical lake on Earth. A voracious predator, the fish wiped out almost every local species in the lake, multiplying fast enough to produce massive stocks of white fillets that were exported all over the world.
In Sauper's sprawling collage, the fish story serves as a foundation and biting allegory for a larger study of greed, opportunism and First World indifference toward the Third World. From the Russian cargo planes flying out loaded with fish but flying in with weapons to fuel the African conflicts claiming thousands of lives per day, to the African ministers and European Union officials turning a blind eye to the starving locals, who are forced to subside on rotting perch carcasses, Sauper assembles a lucid picture of the ugly realities of the economic food chain. "Survival of the fittest" here takes on a new, uneasy meaning.
The local government downplays the havoc wreaked on the ecosystem of a lake at risk of being turned into a barren sinkhole, while at the same time talking up the benefits to the national economy of the fishing trade. Prostitution, HIV infection and alcoholism are rampant in the fishing community of Mwanza, as are violent crime and drug use, notably by local homeless kids melting down the plastic packaging used by the fisheries for an often lethal toxin-sniffing high.
The fisheries also have taken farmers away from their work, leading to shortages of rice and other food staples.
Shot in an immediate, no-frills style by a two-person crew, the film is unhurried and seemingly unstructured. Sauper adheres to the approach of many Euro documentaries that tend to lay out an arbitrary wealth of information, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions with ostensibly minimal guidance. This fits with the sense that the director - rather than having a carefully mapped-out path - is tirelessly scratching the surface for new information and being led on tangents, subtly uncovering the bitter ironies of the situation along the way.
Sauper also has an admirable facility for getting close enough to his remarkably unguarded subjects - the pilots, politicians, factory owners, etc. - to show them not as villains, but as people whose worst crime may be their selective intake of information about the ramifications of their work.
The real heart of the film, however, is the Tanzanians - from fishermen and prostitutes to an uneducated night watchman working a high-risk job for $1 a day - most of whom are interviewed in rudimentary English. These locals' pragmatic acceptance of their harsh reality is both illuminating and saddening.
- David Rooney, Variety, 4 October 2004
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