Published: August 3, 2005
"Darwin's Nightmare," Hubert Sauper's harrowing, indispensable documentary, is framed by the arrival and departure of an enormous Soviet-made cargo plane at an airstrip outside Mwanza, Tanzania. The plane, with its crew of burly Russians and Ukrainians, will leave Mwanza for Europe carrying 55 tons of processed fish caught by Lake Victoria fisherman and filleted at a local factory. Though Mr. Sauper's investigation of the economy and ecology around the lake ranges far and wide - he talks to preachers and prostitutes, to street children and former soldiers - he keeps coming back to a simple question. What do the planes bring to Africa?

The answers vary. The factory managers say the planes' cavernous holds are empty when they land. One of the Russians, made uncomfortable by the question, mutters something vague about "equipment." Some of his colleagues, and several ordinary Mwanzans, are more forthright: the planes, while they occasionally bring humanitarian food and medical aid, more often bring the weapons that fuel the continent's endless and destructive wars.

In any case, they leave behind a scene of misery and devastation that "Darwin's Nightmare" presents as the agonized human face of globalization. While the flesh of millions of Nile perch is stripped, cleaned and flash-frozen for export to wealthy countries, millions of people in the Tanzanian interior live on the brink of famine. Some of them will eat fried fish heads, which are processed in vast open-air pits infested with maggots and scavenging birds. Along the shores of the lake, homeless children fight over scraps of food and get high from the fumes of melting plastic-foam containers used to pack the fish. In the encampments where the fishermen live, AIDS is rampant and the afflicted walk back to their villages to die.

The Nile perch itself haunts the film's infernal landscape like a monstrous metaphor. An alien species introduced into Lake Victoria sometime in the 1960's, it has devoured every other kind of fish in the lake, even feeding on its own young as it grows to almost grotesque dimensions, and destroying an ancient and diverse ecosystem. To some, its prevalence is a boon, since the perch provides an exportable resource that has brought development money from the World Bank and the European Union. The survival of nearly everyone in the film is connected to the fish: the prostitutes who keep company with the pilots in the hotel bars; the displaced farmers who handle the rotting carcasses; the night watchman, armed with a bow and a few poison-tipped arrows, who guards a fish-related research institute. He is paid $1 a day and found the job after his predecessor was murdered.

Filming with a skeleton crew - basically himself and another camera operator - Mr. Sauper has produced an extraordinary work of visual journalism, a richly illustrated report on a distant catastrophe that is also one of the central stories of our time. Rather than use voice-over or talking-head expert interviews, he allows the dimensions of the story to emerge through one-on-one conversation and acutely observed visual detail.

But "Darwin's Nightmare" is also a work of art. Given the gravity of Mr. Sauper's subject, and the rigorous pessimism of his inquiry, it may seem a bit silly to compliment him for his eye. There are images here that have the terrifying sublimity of a painting by El Greco or Hieronymus Bosch: rows of huge, rotting fish heads sticking out of the ground; children turning garbage into makeshift toys. At other moments, you are struck by the natural loveliness of the lake and its surrounding hills, or by the handsome, high-cheekboned faces of many of the Tanzanians. The beauty, though, is not really beside the point; it is an integral part of the movie's ethical vision, which in its tenderness and its angry sense of apocalypse seems to owe less to modern ideologies than to the prophetic rage of William Blake, who glimpsed heaven and hell at an earlier phase of capitalist development. Mr. Sauper's movie is clearly aimed at the political conscience of Western audiences, and its implicit critique of some of our assumptions about the shape and direction of the global economy deserves to be taken seriously. But its reach extends far beyond questions of policy and political economy, and it turns the fugitive, mundane facts that are any documentary's raw materials into the stuff of tragedy and prophecy.

Darwin's Nightmare Opens today in Manhattan.
Written (in English, Russian and Swahili, with English subtitles) and directed by Hubert Sauper; director of photography, Mr. Sauper; edited by Denise Vindevogel; produced by Edouard Mauriat, Antonin Svoboda, Martin Gschlacht, Hubert Toint and Mr. Sauper; released by Celluloid Dreams/International Film Circuit. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 107 minutes.
This film is not rated.
The myriad and altogether devastating effects of a "globalized" economy on the residents of a Tanzanian fishing village are depicted in this haunting, hard-hitting documentary. 1:47 (distressing scenes of squalor, handicapped people, drug use). In English, Russian and Swahili with subtitles. At the IFC Center, Manhattan.

Not just the fish are rotten

August 3, 2005

The "nightmare" depicted so graphically and appallingly here may not be directly yours. But the point made most effectively by Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper's film is that the perilous, shattered lives of those living in a Tanzanian fishing community are directly affected by the same "globalized" economy that could mess with you.

The story of "Darwin's Nightmare" really begins four decades ago when, in what's described as a "little scientific experiment," the Nile perch, a species of huge fish, is introduced to Tanzania's Lake Victoria. The fish are now harvested, chopped into filets and shipped to European and Japanese consumers while the Africans who catch and process them are left with rotting carcasses - and very little else.

With a roving eye and an attentive heart, Sauper's film takes in everyone involved in this miasma, from the crew members of the Russian cargo planes to the prostitutes who "service" them. There are those testifying of drug abuse among homeless children melting empty fish boxes for a poisonous high. HIV infection, violent crime, job-related illness and - oh, yes - the transport of weapons for ruinous African wars by the same planes that export fish filets.

One of the online comments I've seen about "Darwin's Nightmare" praised it as a movie that "hurt" to watch. And it's accurate. Most moviegoers would probably take it as a signal to stay as far away from this as possible. Don't.
August 3, 2005

Running time: 107 minutes. Not rated (disturbing images of poverty and violence). At the IFC Center, Sixth Avenue and Third Street.

AS the people who live near Lake Victoria in Tanzania starve, the region exports enough fish to Europe to feed millions.

The depressing documentary "Darwin's Nightmare" follows the associated pilots, prostitutes and peasants who circle the treasure of the Nile perch, a fish that ruthlessly consumes everything in its path but is tasty to eat.

There are bizarre and horrifying images: A night watchman stands guard with poison-tipped arrows wishing for war because it would bring jobs; villagers gather and eat maggot-covered fish carcasses. There's even a Michael Moore moment when the owner of the fish-processing factory shows us his novelty bass wall plaque with a fish that sings, "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

The documentary tries to pin Africa's suffering on capitalism, but dances around the real problem. Africa starves because corrupt governments own the natural resources and export them to buy weapons to keep their people at bay.

Changing that fact would require outside force, which would outrage the documentarians all over again.
"A fascinating cautionary tale in the guise of a documentary showing how, in the age of globalisation, things can evolve in the worst possible of unforeseen ways.  Witty, incisive, heart-breaking, angry, shocking, and very imaginative, it's yet further proof that Austrian film-makers are now getting things right."
“Fascinatingly detailed and enriched by the candor and dignity of its shockingly deprived interview subjects. 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.”
“Billed as a study of the Nile perch, a ruthlessly effective predator introduced into Lake Victoria 30 years ago, Darwin's Nightmare is in fact hardly about that at all. True, these giant fish are a constant presence in Hubert Sauper's sobering documentary, but the focus is not the lake's ecosystem but the personal stories of those who work in the fishing, filleting and transport industries that have colonised the Tanzanian shore.
Every day, vast Russian planes arrive in Mwanza airport in the north west of the country, leaving with a daily cargo of 500 tons of Nile perch destined for the Russian and European markets. What these planes carry on their way into Africa is a mystery that nobody wants to talk about, until a solitary, subdued pilot admits that he flies tanks and other weapons into Angola. That's where the real money lies. The fish are simply a bonus that fill up the planes on the flight back to Europe.
Most of the local people involved with the Nile perch have no idea about the hardware passing through their country. Many are grateful to the industry for the employment it provides, but it attracts domestic problems too. The job hunters flooding into the area encourage the spread of AIDS, while the large number of men with a little cash in their pockets and nothing to spend it on allows prostitution to flourish.
The cruellest irony is that while so much fish is exported to Europe, Tanzania itself is struggling to avoid famine, so a secondary industry has grown up drying and roasting the decayed, discarded fish carcasses, salvaging what nourishment remains. How much blame can be pinned on the fishing industry and how much should more properly be attributed to Africa's wider problems is open to question, but this is a desperately sad story, told by people who accept their plight with astonishing serenity. It is a great injustice that not all of them live through to the end of filming.”
Hubert Sauper's staggering documentary is essential viewing on the survival of two ruthlessly fittest species: the Nile perch, which quickly annihilated almost all other fish life in Tanzania's Lake Victoria after its artificial introduction in the '60s, and the omnivorous beast known as winner-take-all global capitalism. Cargo planes descend on the region with weaponry—apparently to restock nearby civil wars—and leave for Europe with loads of Nile perch while the AIDS-racked local population hovers on the brink of starvation. Sauper's stoically despondent film leaves little doubt that globalization's losers are slaves by any other name.
Jessica WINTER

The Descent of Man

Essential doc views globalization through prism of Tanzanian eco-disaster, sees colonialism

Darwin 's Nightmare

Written and directed by Hubert Sauper

Celluloid Dreams/International Film Circuit

Opens August 3, IFC Center


by Dennis Lim

August 2nd, 2005 4:16 PM

The Nile perch was introduced to Lake Victoria some 40 to 50 years ago, an apparent attempt to replenish the overfished waters that led to the extinction of hundreds of indigenous species. An oily-fleshed fish that reaches over six feet in length, the Lates niloticus rapidly emerged as the fittest specimen in its new habitat, depleting the food supply and preying on smaller fish (including its young). In a 2001 report, the World Conservation Union deemed the Nile perch one of the planet's 100 "worst invasive alien species." This ongoing ecological disaster happens to be the basis for a multimillion-dollar business: Tanzania , which owns 49 percent of Lake Victoria , is the main exporter of perch to the European Union. Bitter ironies come thick and fast in Hubert Sauper's essential documentary Darwin 's Nightmare, and the most obvious one may be that this unnatural abundance of a profitable protein source—an economic godsend, if you ask the on-message factory managers and government officials—coexists with inhuman levels of famine and poverty.

Quietly outraged and actively upsetting, Darwin 's Nightmare spirals out from a case study of one cannibalistic killer to a far bigger and more rapacious fish. The ruthless supremacy of the Nile perch and its devastating effect on the lake's ecosystem constitute a gruesomely resonant metaphor for the impact of global capitalism on local industry. From intimate camcorder interviews with fishermen, fishery workers, cargo pilots, and the prostitutes and street kids on the fringes of this lakeshore economic network, Sauper, an Austrian-born, Paris-based documentarian, constructs a detailed seismograph of predatory free trade's ripple effect.


At one point, after viewing a cautionary video about Lake Victoria at an ecological conference, a Tanzanian minister blithely accuses the filmmakers of accentuating the negative: "What about the beautiful areas?" It's safe to assume he would take greater exception to Darwin 's Nightmare, a crescendo of dismay that uncovers fresh horrors in almost every scene. Each appalling revelation is topped by a ghastlier one. Not only do the fishermen live in work colonies with no medical care and easy access to HIV-positive prostitutes (a pastor Sauper interviews gently discourages condom use), they're sent home to die before they get too ill, due to the prohibitive cost of corpse transport. Not only can most Tanzanians not afford the thick white perch fillets that are consumed by millions of Europeans daily, they're forced to literally pick on the rotting remains:

Darwin 's Nightmare finds its most Brueghelian images at a sort of open-air factory, where ammonia-emitting, maggot-swarmed perch carcasses are dried and fried, repackaged as a local subsistence food. And in an even grimmer form of recycling, the factories' leftover packing materials are collected by children who melt down the plastic and inhale the fumes.


Sauper avoids voice-over and uses sparing titles, but there's no mistaking the film's point of view. In one unapologetic gut-punch sequence, he cuts from the fish dump, where an employee partially blinded by ammonia attests that her life has improved since she started working there, to a European trade delegation droning on about the perch industry's improving infrastructure and cleanliness standards, and in turn to footage of young boys fighting over a few mouthfuls of rice. The film returns repeatedly to the visual motif of Russian cargo planes taking off and landing over Lake Victoria—Sauper at first seems to be making the point that they leave heaving with crates of fish (the wrecks of overloaded planes still dot the airstrip) and fly in empty, a symbol of the take-and-take relationship that the West has long dictated with Africa. But the gradually divulged reality proves worse still: Many of the planes arrive loaded with the weapons that sustain the bloody conflicts raging nearby.


Praising Sauper's Kisangani Diary, an account of Rwandan refugees in the Congo , the ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch used the phrase "a cinema of contact." Darwin 's Nightmare likewise benefits from Sauper's proximity with his subjects, some of whom possess a big-picture understanding of their plight that is of no practical use to them. Perhaps the film's most vivid figure, Raphael, a night watchman with bloodshot eyes, notes that war, besides profiting the powerful, is also an appealing financial option for those lucky enough to join the army. Darwin 's Nightmare strings together cruel ironies into a work of harrowing lucidity. It illuminates the sinister logic of a new world order that depends on corrupt globalization to put an acceptable face on age-old colonialism.




Darwin 's Director Hubert Sauper on the Ethics of Free Trade and Filmmaking

by Joshua Land

August 2nd, 2005 4:25 PM write to us


How did the project first come about?

I made another movie in the Congo in '97. And the only way to get into the region was to use the U.N. aircraft. I got friendly with the pilots and they said, "Don't think we only bring [humanitarian aid] to the Congo ." I said, "What else are you bringing?" "Everything you need for the war." Of course they wouldn't tell me any of this on-camera. But I figured it would be worth a few years of my life to make a movie out of this! So I got to know this world of arms trafficking. Not necessarily illegal arms trafficking but also just arms transport from one government to another. Which is no less of a crime in my eyes.


Did you have any qualms about including the footage of the kids sniffing glue?

Not at all. It was something that I'd seen every day. My attitude is to document as [well] as I can. It doesn't mean that I don't care. It means [those are the moments] when I was filming. At other moments I was bringing them to the hospital. But that's not the subject of the film. I don't want to send a message that things are going wrong, but I'm a nice guy!


You talk about how the consumer democracy form of capitalism has "won" the global struggle in the Darwinian sense. Do you think there's any way to stop the kind of things we see in this film?

There are two ways. The first is to get much wider awareness of what we're doing by opening [these] markets. The other possible solution is global breakdown. I don't see [how] current developments can keep on going. There's a big difference between knowing and awareness. You don't need me to tell you that kids are starving in Africa . But I can give you a different awareness in the language of art. There isn't anything new in my movie. It's all known. I just give it a face. Somehow that transforms our knowing into understanding. At least that's what I hope. go to next article in film