Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Feature (2005)
Without a formal narrative structure, Hubert Sauper's documentary occasionally uses captions and intertitles as aids, but the story within Darwin's Nightmare pretty much relies on the words of locals and powerful images to document the social and evolutionary conflicsts and catastophies within a modest Tanzanian town by Lake Victoria.
Sauper begins with the mundane: a Russian charter jet lands in a rickety airport, and the weathered pilots and crew begin to set up their cargo hold for a large shipment of fish. The group is then followed into town, where they meet familiar women who prostitute themselves for money, as there's little work for locals beyond the fish trade.
Once a farming community, the main source of revenue now comes from the extraction of the Nile Perch, a massive living weed that's killed off native fish by eating everything in sight and using up much of the oxygen in the lake. Sold to wealthy Europeans for a premium, the huge fish is a profitable venture for local businessmen, and a great P.R. booster for Tanzanian trade officials who use the immense fish processing plants as shining examples of a country with its own vibrant, independent economy.
Beneath the boasting, and aside from the wealthy plant owners, however, the local economy in shambles because former farmers-turned-fisherman can't afford the plentiful Nile Perch they catch. Children from broken homes clutter the streets, stigmatized women turn to prostitution, Catholic missions forbid birth control, and local crime is solved with blunt or sharp instruments - like poison-tipped arrows used by a former soldier hired to guard a plant, and one who admits another war would give him steady work and far better pay. The fisheries are also run by a specific ethnic class who deny there's any social problems, while a few desperate locals manage to find food by stealing the waste materials from filleted fish.
When Sauper and his camera crew follow the fish thieves, the catastrophe is seen in gory, grotesque detail: like a post-apocalyptic landscape, men and women sort through the rotting, maggot-infested fish slag, and mount them on meters of wooden racks to dry. Flies buzz, the air is fetid, people trod barefoot in fish-soaked mud, and one woman explains her missing eye – removed due to an infection from carrying rotting fish in a head-basket.
A few hopeful cases are shown – a local boy determined to pull himself out of poverty through art that documents the horrors within his community – but the nightmare continues as the Russian pilots are followed by the director, loading up on frozen Perch, and leaving a town with little hope of emerging from this man-made mess.
Sauper's film is certainly controversial for its fly-on-the-wall style: he must have hung around for long periods and captured a tremendous variety of candid confessions by the displaced, the ignorant, and the smug. The editing is loose, the camerawork rough and crude at times, and though some detractors regard the doc as anti-European propaganda, the various character threads are all interconnected by acts of horrible desperation and sadness: the Russian pilots make money by globe-trotting to dangerous locales, while the prostitutes take their chances with AIDS, and the potential violence that erupts from time to time (as happens to one woman, seen singing Tanzania's national anthme in the beginning, and dead before the end credits).
Though the doc has no closing comment or resolution (and infers a secret arms trade among the charter jets that roar into the airport), Sauper's lack of finger-pointing focuses the blame on a series of bad events, class divisions, social stigmas, and greed that have collectively turned an already fragile community into a surreal disaster zone.
Provocative and rewarding for sure, but the lack of a decisive position from the filmmaker and any supplemental features on this bare bones DVD means some viewers will find the whole experience a bit interminable and frustrating.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan