Perched on the Edge

Washington City Paper | December 2, 2005
Darwin’s Nightmare begins and ends with a plane. Large and Russian, it lands and takes off at the desolate airport in Mwanza, a city in northwest Tanzania. It’s here that the Nile perch, which destroyed every other species in nearby Lake Victoria but became a delicacy throughout Europe, is processed and exported. Worldwide demand makes the fish too expensive for the impoverished Tanzanians to enjoy themselves. Instead, they settle for the perches’ discarded heads, which prior to cooking lie in dirt and maggots.

In other words: The plane is us, capitalist rapists all. Though Americans aren’t directly indicted in Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper’s latest documentary, its portrayal of an unbalanced global economy arguably puts all First World nations in the hot seat. Snakehead-plagued Washingtonians might feel some kinship for the Tanzanians, but that doesn’t exempt them. Yes, the predatory perch is a biological oops, released into Lake Victoria 40 years ago as part of a science experiment. But its impact extends to much more than game fish and tourist dollars.

Sauper and his crew often had to use false identities and create ruses to explain their presence in this part of Africa’s Great Lakes region, but the director still managed to capture stark images and wangle interviews with both the locals and the factory owners and pilots involved in the export trade. Initially—and sadly—the film is hardly shocking, offering scenes of shantytowns and malnourishment to which television has inured well-fed Westerners. But Sauper isn’t Sally Struthers; for the most part, he coolly delves into the economic and sociological events that have resulted in people starving in an area where thousands of tons of edible fish are harvested every year.

Always offscreen, the filmmaker talks to residents such as Eliza, a pretty young woman who, like her peers, felt forced into prostituting herself to pilots to survive. Or Raphael, a man who took a job guarding a processing plant at night—armed with poisoned arrows and paid $1 a shift—after the previous guard was murdered. Raphael speaks frankly about how locals need to take whatever jobs they can get, no matter how horrible, and about how he wishes for war because it would mean plenty of work. One ongoing opportunity Tanzanian men have, of course, is to fish—but that’s mainly because so many of their countrymen die in the process.

After witnessing the daily arrival of foreign planes ready to be filled with up to 500 tons of perch, Sauper begins questioning what, if anything, the exporters fly in with. One cargo manager claims he doesn’t know, that it’s none of his business. Another calls it “humanitarian cargo.” The truth, which Sauper sporadically succeeds in dragging out of his reluctant subjects, is that the planes are often loaded with illegal arms to supply warring African nations.

Darwin’s Nightmare succeeds in connecting both emotionally and intellectually, but it’s not without flaws. You may be puzzled at the film’s beginning, for instance, when Sauper jumps from the facts of the Nile perch’s invasion to scenes of boys running, crying, and punching each other on the streets—not the only instance in which the narrative veers chaotically between points. Sauper isn’t above gimmickry, either. At one point, he ludicrously has a factory owner sit in a boardroom with a newspaper after the exec has turned on one of those damn singing bass that play “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Most problematic of all is Sauper’s condescending tone during a couple of the interviews, such as when he talks to a proud Tanzanian father about his son who wants to become a pilot. The director forces him to imagine the kid flying an export plane, then asks, as if to a child, what things that plane might bring Tanzanians from those rich, magical-sounding European countries. Darwin’s Nightmare tells us enough about well-fed Westerners’ dehumanization of poor Africans without the director’s indulging in it, too.

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