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Darwin's Nightmare
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by PaulBryant

"Less of a Darwinian Nightmare than a Malthusian Trap."
5 stars

Mwanza, Tanzania. Ever heard of it? Ever heard of the Nile perch? Did you know that for some reason the Nile perch, an exotic fish to Mwanza’s waters, was introduced into Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, whereupon it devoured nearly all other species, rendering it the sole export, and dwindling key to the survival of Mwanza’s people? Darwin’s Nightmare won’t tell you these things in strict factual form, it will instead show you them, indirectly. All the causes and effects of life in a particular African city: filterless, and with startling reality.

This all-Handycam documentary doesn’t dry us out with statistics, or offer us any detailed history of Tanzania, of Africa, or even much about the fish responsible for pilfering away all other edible forms of life in the second largest fresh water lake in the world. Instead, we see results. Not just of the dangers of releasing an exotic fish into an ecosystem which can’t sustain it, or the subsequent dependence on that fish that local economies like Mwanza can’t avoid, but instead of the apathy the entire world covertly demonstrates towards these “unseen” cities. Apathy that creates poverty, proliferates HIV/AIDS, oppresses women into finding their only salvation in prostitution, and crushes youths into pummeling each other for handfuls of rice, and sniffing melted plastic to alleviate the pain of their lives.

The films digs its heels in the day-to-day trials of living in Mwanza, from prostitutes who service the European pilots who come to Tanzania to export Nile perch, to the pastors who deal with the religious struggles of fisherman and fatherless children on the shores of Lake Victoria, and who still view using a condom as a sin, even in villages where 40-50 people die of AIDS every 6 months. It shows you a world full of atrocities you could never imagine living, or even dare think is out there. But it is out there, held up by rapid globalization, international political decisions, corporate profit margins, and massive industrialization. These things, these decisions, these practices, these profits, all come at the expense of something, and that something is what Darwin’s Nightmare is all about.

The film, in a risky proposal, doesn’t use any narration – something which would seem essential, especially considering the relative lack of knowledge I’m venturing most Westerners have about Tanzania, but which allows the film to connect with us more intimately. A personal proximity is what the film most greatly achieves. It’s easy to hear statistics all day, about how almost a billion people in the world are facing starvation, or how we spend, as a planet, almost a trillion dollars on our various militaries every year, when it would cost only around 8 billion dollars annually to ensure every person had access to clean water. You can say these things in a few seconds, as though they didn’t mean a darn thing. But they do.

People, instead of numbers, is why Darwin’s Nightmare is such an important film for everyone to see, because no statistic is going to show you what it is like to work as a night watchman outside a fish packing plant with poison-tipped arrows in your hand and the terrifying awareness that the only reason you got the job is because the previous watchman was murdered. No stats will explain to you the terror a child feels when his mother has been killed by “the virus” and his father is off trying to survive by going out on extended fishing expeditions, and he must try and keep himself afloat in a city that has been gradually sinking with pollution, unemployment, disease, and famine.

Approximately two million white people eat the Victorian version of the Nile perch every day, the film tells us, in one of its title-card interruptions. A fish that comes from villages like a particularly desperate one the movie showcases, where the number of people dying of AIDS is slowly increasing to 10-15 every thirty days. Meanwhile, a multitude of weapons are smuggled into the continent to fuel various wars through the very same airplanes that come in to export their much needed food supply. Sources, informants, and citizens on the ground level detail the government’s complicity in smuggling in arms to the various conflicts that rage within nearby Angola, or the Congo – all of which are easily imported through Mwanza’s ridiculously chaotic and poorly secured airport. Strewn fragments of fuselage pepper the perimeter of the airport, where the radio contact between airplanes and the control tower is usually non-existent, and tiny red and green spotlights act as the only indicators for their midnight landings. This, as you can see, is part of the film's 'nightmare'.

But, to read this review is useless unless you see the movie. I can only attempt at imparting to you the details, silences, tears, and pain that the movie illustrates, but will always come up miles short of its overall power. Many portions of it are almost too hard to watch. Seeing street children fight viciously for a scoopful of rice on a blistering hot day is particularly difficult, as are following scenes where these same kids melt down the plastic fish packaging and breathe in the toxic fumes to get high.

With the Rwandan genocide only a decade old, and the Darfur region of Sudan currently suffering from years of mass killing – not to mention the millions of people in that country who, as we speak, are living in makeshift shantytowns instead of at home – we need to learn to sit up, take notes, and stop ignoring the atrocities that are going on in Africa. Movies like Darwin’s Nightmare can change our lives, move all of us to become aware of the situations like the troubles in Mwanza (let alone the ones in Sudan) which our news stations don’t seem to want to dig into very often.

The last few scenes of Darwin’s Nightmare will especially haunt you. In one, we see an exhausted, emotional Russian pilot of a cargo plane, who knows that so many planes like the one he flies come in to Africa to export certain goods, but all too often bring with them vehicles, weapons, and ammunition through the disarray of Mwanza-like airports. As he tells it, in sobering broken English, “Last year, children in Angola were given guns for Christmas. In Europe they’re given Angola’s grapes.”

The other final scenes you'll have to go to the movie to see.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10605&reviewer=364
originally posted: 06/23/05 04:02:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sydney Film Festival For more in the 2005 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 FilmFest Kansas City For more in the 2005 FilmFest Kansas City series, click here.

User Comments

6/15/07 Kerry Parslow Saw it 18 months ago - images still haunt me. A film all should see and try to understand. 5 stars
11/08/06 andrew francis It is very baised with no enough evidence. It aims at degrading the nation`s integrity 1 stars
8/31/06 Bob Harakati No wonder Sauper is a traiter 2 his White brother & "Junk Food" 2 some African Politicians 4 stars
8/19/06 john brown Sauper is a total fraud 1 stars
4/23/06 Jim Destroying an ecosystem for fun and profit 5 stars
11/13/05 Malembela Publishes perspectives of Tanzanina's in lake are very well. Very hard-hitting, provocative 5 stars
10/24/05 Jonathan B depressing but all should see 4 stars
7/06/05 Gerhard Brostrom A moving depiction--prompts us to soulsearching 5 stars
6/21/05 Amy Hart How do illegal arms get into Africa? A fishy story. 5 stars
5/30/05 jabba Needs wider release NOW 5 stars
12/07/04 Roberto Carrera You have to see it! 5 stars
9/19/04 denny powerful: if you loved this, watch "life and debt" 5 stars
9/15/04 tamara bukhanov put all in this continent in very uncomfortable position. So it will be rejected. 5 stars
9/15/04 Mike Preston A very powerful film - do try to see it 5 stars
9/13/04 Nicole Longstaff Shocking and Chilling--A MUST-SEE!!! 5 stars
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  DVD: 26-Jun-2007



Directed by
  Hubert Sauper

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