The film begins with a shot of a mammoth cargo jet sailing through the air and casting its spectral shadow on the still blue waters beneath it -- a visual metaphor that gathers meaning and force as the movie progresses. The cargo jet, piloted by a crew of Russians, will land in the town of Mwanza, fill its hold with 55 tons of filleted Nile Perch, and return to Europe where the fish will be eaten and enjoyed by millions of people -- all part of the daily routine of international commerce. From a distance of 30,000 feet, nothing seems wrong with this picture, but as Sauper and his crew bring the details into focus, the horrors of poverty, war, disease, and prostitution emerge.
Sauper's subjects are regular people -- a security guard at a Lake Victoria research institute, a Russian pilot, a prostitute, a homeless child, a preacher, and several others -- and their stories supply the film's flesh and blood. Each person is somehow connected to the local fishing industry, and everyone, particularly the Tanzanians, seems worse off for it. The security guard, Raphael, talks with pride and gratitude about how he's paid one dollar a day to guard the research institute from thieves. His meager means of defense are a bow and poison-tipped arrows, and he was offered the position only after his predecessor was killed on duty. A young homeless boy, who spends his time walking the street and getting high on the fumes of burning plastic fish containers, reluctantly talks about his father who has abandoned him for a job on a fishing boat. A prostitute, whose clientele is composed of the foreign pilots flying in and out of Mwanza, sings the Tanzanian national anthem for the camera in one of the film's opening sequences, and then is later stabbed to death by an Australian client.
All of these situations are indeed tragic, but Darwin's Nightmare jumps into another dimension of human suffering when the film's most blistering and perverse irony is revealed. After watching innumerable fish pulled out of the lake, filleted at factories, and loaded onto airplanes, it's revealed that the Tanzanians don't actually eat Nile Perch filets. The processing makes them too expensive. Instead, the starving Tanzanians can only afford to eat the rotting, maggot-ridden leftovers -- fish heads fried in massive, filthy open-air vats.
Sauper skillfully presents these atrocities to play on the conscience of the audience, but he stretches too far when he tries to involve the international arms trade. Throughout the movie, he asks each of the characters what the planes bring in to Tanzania. Of course everyone knows they leave with tons of Nile Perch, but no is quite sure what they come in with. Various answers are given. Some say the planes arrive empty. Others say they bring in humanitarian supplies. Still others say they bring in guns and weapons that are used in the numerous wars around Africa. This is the answer that Sauper obviously favors, yet he's unable to document it in any way. It's easy to understand why he's attracted to this theory. Nothing could be more horrifically symmetrical than planes carrying food to nourish in one direction and weapons to kill in the other. In the end, Sauper may be right on this point, but his film doesn't prove it -- or even come close.
This minor flaw is the lone blot on an otherwise remarkable documentary. Darwin's Nightmare is a quietly poetic lament, an unforgettable film that ranks as mandatory viewing for anyone who's concerned with the plight of Africa.
Run time: 107 mins
In Theaters: Friday 21st January 2005
Distributed by: Ad Vitam
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Fresh: 48 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Hubert Sauper
Producer: Barbara Albert, Martin Gschlacht, Edouard Mauriat, Hubert Sauper, Antonin Svoboda, Hubert Toint
Screenwriter: Hubert Sauper
Starring: Elizabeth 'Eliza' Maganga Nsese as Herself - Pilots' girlfriend, singer, Raphael Tukiko Wagara as Himself - Night guard, Dimond Remtulia as Himself - Fish factory owner, Marcus Nyoni as Himself - Airport police officer
Also starring: Antonin Svoboda