Eat or be eaten: it's the law of the jungle. No better example of this exists than the Nile perch, a voracious predator that was first introduced into Africa's Lake Victoria in the 1950s. Since then it has destroyed nearly every species of fish in the lake, and in some places has even taken to cannibalism in order to survive.
At first glance, Hubert Sauper's documentary on this phenomenon seems to focus on the devastating effects this species has wreaked on the world's second largest freshwater lake. It isn't long, however, before we see how survival of the fittest isn't just Darwin's mantra, it's the foundation for globalization.
The perch, which can grow to gigantic proportions, has become a popular European delicacy. As a result, a multibillion-dollar industry has emerged along the shores of Lake Victoria, fueled by cheap labor from locals.
Every day immense cargo planes, piloted by Russian crews, land in Mwanza, Tanzania, to load tons of fish. Austrian filmmaker Sauper returns over and over again to the image of jets landing and taking off. The message is clear: Things look great from 50,000 feet, but closer to the ground, a vision of hellish squalor comes into focus. Poverty, despair, disease and prostitution emerge as the byproducts of international commerce. The perch has become the perfect metaphor for the destructive impact of unrestrained capitalism.
Using mostly intimate video interviews with fishermen, cargo pilots, street kids, preachers and prostitutes, Sauper paints a detailed portrait of globalization run amok. Everyone in Mwanza is connected to the fishing trade and everyone, except the industrialists, is worse off for it.
Showing us the cruel domino effect of free trade, Darwin's Nightmare gradually piles one example of human misery atop another, revealing a complex chain of exploitation and despair. Local factory managers and government officials exploit the locals desperate from famine and poverty with slave wages. Young women turn to prostitution, servicing the transient (and often abusive) pilots. Abandoned children convert the industry's discarded materials into glue they can huff, numbing themselves to daily encounters of violence and rape.
The most perverse irony: Underpaid workers pull, fillet and load countless fish, but cannot even afford to eat them. They are instead forced to subsist on the gutted, maggot-ridden heads and tails. Worse still, the people responsible for salvaging the carcasses and frying them in filthy vats of grease are grateful for the work even though the ammonia fumes eventually leave them sick and crippled.
Sauper avoids voiceovers and uses a light hand to drive home his point: The new world order is reliant on increasingly corrupt business practices.
Interviewing the Russians pilot crews, Sauper asks, again and again, what do the planes bring into Tanzania? Their responses are vague and evasive until one pilot, drunk and ashamed, admits to transporting weapons (though the film never actually proves this point).
With all these issues on his plate, Sauper fumbles a bit with some overreaching attempts to tie in the African AIDS crisis. While the disease is an inescapable tragedy, the fish industry can't be held accountable for its spread and the director spends too much time trying to make it an important piece in his puzzle of injustice. But it's a small flaw in this otherwise disturbingly poignant documentary.
Darwin's Nightmare is the kind of film few will seek out but everyone should be required to see. Juxtaposing well-observed moments, Sauper challenges us to connect the dots ourselves, presenting an eye-opening and compassionate documentary that respects the intelligence and conscience of its audience. Don't let the subject matter put you off.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 31, and Saturday, April 1, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 2. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].