Film Review: ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’

Indictment of Global Capitalism

‘Darwin’s Nightmare’, (2004)

On an elevated plateau in western Africa’s Great Rift Valley lies Lake Victoria, the source of the River Nile and the second largest freshwater lake in the world. The lake supports hundreds of animal species found nowhere else on earth – or at least it did up until the 1960s, when commercial fishermen introduced the Nile perch, in an attempt to improve fishing yields. The Nile perch is a voracious predator and within years had completely wiped out many of the native species.

Almost as devastating has been the effect on the local human population, which is among the highest-density in the world. With the decline of indigenous fish stocks and the population explosion of the Nile perch, many of the millions of Africans who live and work around Lake Victoria have been displaced from their traditional farming and fishing occupations. Out of economic necessity, they have been forced to accept positions as wage-labourers for large-scale Nile perch fisheries and packing plants. Meanwhile, processing of the invasive perch, whose flesh is much oilier than those of native species, has led to an increase in demand for firewood to dry the meat. This has resulted in  widespread deforestation and the pollution of Lake Victoria from runoff.

This sorry state of affairs is chillingly documented in Darwin’s Nightmare, which premiered at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival and is now gradually seeing wide release across Europe. Director Hubert Sauper presents us with contrasting images to reinforce the human devastation of the fishing communities in and around the Tanzanian city of Mwanza. We are taken inside the booming fish processing factories, where 500 tons of Nile perch are filleted and packed for export to Europe every day; meanwhile, two million Tanzanians find themselves gripped by a deadly famine. We see fishermen and prostitutes wasting away from AIDS; the local Christian clergy, steadfast in their religious superstitions on sex, refuse to advocate the use of condoms. An animatronic fish in a fat factory owner’s office croons out “Don’t Worry Be Happy” while the starving street-children outside come to blows over the apportionment of a meagre can of rice. Those who failed to snatch a handful assuage their hunger by melting down and inhaling the plastic material the factory uses to package its fish.

Perhaps the most memorable and horrific scene in the movie comes after Sauper interviews a factory official on a balcony overlooking the premises. The camera pans across the grounds and focuses on a rickety truck being loaded up with fish offal. “Don’t film that truck,” barks the official. Some days later, though, Sauper secretly follows the truck to a dirty, stinking landfill where its foul cargo is dumped. The air is thick with the ammonia of decaying fish, and hordes of maggots feast upon the rotting carcasses. A group of mud-caked women, crippled and sick from years of breathing the noxious fumes, crowd around the pile of offal the truck has left behind and get to work. Every scrap of fish – no matter how badly decomposed, muddy, or maggot-infested – is carefully collected and hung up to dry on densely-packed wooden frames. The factory-processed perch fillets are beyond the means of most Tanzanians to buy, so millions must instead subsist on this decaying factory refuse.

Impressively, Sauper does not single out any one person or group of people as evil-doers – not even the factory owners. Rather, the interviews and scenes depicted in the film lead the viewer to the inevitable yet unspoken conclusion that the capitalist system of exploitation itself is the culprit. “[W]herever prime raw material is discovered, the locals die in misery, their sons become soldiers, and their daughters are turned into servants and whores,”  writes Sauper on the film’s website . “It seems that the individual participants within a deadly system don’t have ugly faces, and for the most part, no bad intentions.”

If the film has any fault, it is that it offers no solution to the problems it documents. Sauper is not at all optimistic: “The old question, which social and political structure is the best for the world seems to have been answered. Capitalism has won,” he writes with a depressing air of finality. In doing so he parrots  the old social-Darwinist attitude that class society is merely “survival of the fittest” as applied to economic competition between individuals, and that capitalism is the natural order of things. It is a discredit to Sauper’s talents as a researcher and observer of human behaviour that he has no retort to this untenable point of view. Despite the filmmaker’s pessimism, the documentary itself stands up well on its own as a merciless indictment of global capitalism. After watching Darwin’s Nightmare, anyone who professes to see no causal relationship between capitalism and the poverty of Africa will be forced to think again.

Tristan Miller

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