We Dine, They Die

'Darwin's Nightmare' calculates the terrible cost of a good meal

Darwin's Nightmare, a disturbing new documentary from Austrian-born filmmaker Hubert Sauper, opens with a plane gliding above Tanzania's sparkling Lake Victoria--an exalted yet schmaltzy image that could easily kick off a sequel to Out of Africa. But instead of being another tired Hollywood tale in which khaki-clad white people get it on against an exotic African backdrop, Darwin's Nightmare explores that most abstruse of topics: globalization. As its title suggests, the film is about what can go wrong when a survival-of-the-fittest mentality is applied to a world governed indiscriminately by market fundamentalism.

Take that seemingly picturesque aircraft. More Klingon bird of prey than romantic glider, it is one of many huge cargo planes that descend upon western Tanzania daily in order to load up for export several tons of Nile perch, a nonnative fish that money-hungry foreign capitalists introduced into Lake Victoria in the 1960s in order to sell abroad. Besides increasing development too quickly and destabilizing the ecosystem, not just of Lake Victoria (the world's largest tropical lake), but of the many adjacent fishing communities, the predatory Nile perch also gulped down most of the lake's native fish species, which the local Tanzanians relied on for sustenance. The result? While millions of Europeans enjoy the Nile perch's gleaming white fillets every day, Tanzanians, most of whom can't afford the high cost of their primary export, are left to subsist on maggot-infested fish carcasses and heads. This is globalization? More like colonialism in sheep's clothing.

Unlike Hurricane Katrina, which played out like the ultimate disaster movie, the concept of globalization is so vast and abstract that it's difficult for most people to pin down, let alone form an opinion about. However, through intimate one-on-one interviews, Darwin's Nightmare successfully exposes the all-too-human ripple effects of globalization and the insidious violence hatched in corporate boardrooms all over the world. Sauper faced down many obstacles in the four years he spent filming the documentary--including run-ins with Tanzanian police officers and being forced to disguise himself as a pilot, missionary, and businessman in order to get footage. But, with admirable restraint, he chooses to focus on the human faces of globalization: poor Tanzanian fishermen ravaged by AIDS; orphaned street children hooked on a toxic glue made of melted-down fish packaging; a charismatic man named Raphael who makes a dollar a day guarding the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute; and a beautiful prostitute named Eliza who is dependent on sleazy (and often violent) Russian cargo pilots.

Two eyes took the aim: 'Darwin's Nightmare'
Celluloid Dreams
Two eyes took the aim: 'Darwin's Nightmare'

"The biggest problem we have with globalization," Sauper told me by phone, "is that we don't see the problem--there's a lack of awareness. This is not a movie about Tanzania. It's about something bigger, which is the total absence of law and justice in places like this."

Sauper's film excels at showing that there are always winners and losers in the zero-sum game that is globalization: At one point he draws a direct connection between a seemingly innocuous fish fillet and a homeless Tanzanian child who sniffs himself into a stupor so that when he is sodomized on the street, he can sleep through it. Near the end of the film, an even more shocking and nefarious connection is revealed: The Nile perch industry that has wreaked so much havoc on the Tanzanians actually functions as a screen to allow many of the cargo pilots, with the blessing of top Tanzanian government officials, to carry out their real business--the smuggling of illicit weapons into war-torn countries such as Congo, Liberia, and Sudan. After discovering this, I was tempted to cheer the footage of a cargo plane that takes off, but eventually crashes to the ground, the victim of a load too heavy for flight. But then I realized that, just like the Tanzanian fisherman and prostitutes and street children, the cargo pilots are only bit players--"pawns in their game," as Bob Dylan would say.

So why doesn't the rest of the world care about this? After all, as Nicolas Cage's gunrunner character suggests in the new Lord of War, aren't these armed weapons, all these AK-47s, the "real weapons of mass destruction"?

"We have five million people dead in Congo versus 14,000 in Iraq," Sauper says. "The very simple answer about why we don't care about Congo is a profound unconscious racism. Those are other people dying--blacks, not 'us.'"

That "not me" attitude, Sauper suggests, is the engine that drives globalization, but also one that, if reconsidered, could stem its tide.

"My work is not about poor people in Africa or mean Russians, but about understanding what is going on," he says. "People, all six billion, have to start using their brains. They have to start being aware of what is happening in Africa, because then we have six billion potential solutions."

 
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