Doc of the Day: Darwin's Nightmare Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Darwin's Nightmare

Posted in Days of Docs by - February 17, 2012

People on the fringe of the Third World live a pitiless struggle for survival. They are the cost of our business.

Poster courtesy of Imp Awards.

Dir. Hubert Sauper, 2005, 107 min

Going to the Third World is a tricky endeavor for documentary filmmakers. You have to avoid exploiting your subjects, whether that means making a dishonest happy ending or pointless misery porn. Darwin’s Nightmare avoids those pitfalls by taking an approach I’ll call compassionate anthropology. It’s a very precise and observational film, with the camera acting as a confessional and not a judge. But instead of being remote or detached, this technique makes the people and their situation come alive in a harrowing way. This is a bleak, raw story without any easy answers or much optimism for the future. It also needs to be told.

On the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, communities have sprung up based around the fishing industry. The Nile Perch, introduced in the 1950’s as a “little experiment” by foreign scientists, has thrived in the Lake. The huge fish fetch a nice price in Europe, and now form a substantial portion of Tanzania’s exports. This documentary follows the people of this environment. There are workers at the fish processing plants, foreign pilots of the planes that take the food away, prostitutes who service the workers, the children of them all, and other assorted individuals. Eliza is the “girlfriend” of many pilots. Jonathan is an artist who captures the surrounding squalor in painting. Dima is a Russian pilot with firsthand knowledge of the gun trade. They and many more are our guides on this perverse safari.

Darwin’s Nightmare is as rough and tumble a doc as you’ll see. It’s incredibly “ugly,” shot with little budget and a miniscule crew. The sound sometimes falters and the image often shudders, especially at night. But this seems the only proper visual tone. You can almost smell the rot of the dead fish or the oily metal of the planes, or feel the oppressive humidity of an airport office. The movie feels completely unfiltered, and that immediacy lends it a great sticking power. Lars von Trier has said that a movie should be like a stone in your shoe, and this feels like bullet lodged in your soul.

Befitting the title, this is a raw ecosystem where survival of the fittest is the highest rule. Civilization supposedly means that we can transcend this base law of nature and work together for a common good. These people can’t afford to do so. They’ve all already lost. The fittest are the foreign First Worlders, the ones who manipulate their home for their own profit. They brought in the Nile Perch, a freakish monster of a fish that has ravaged the ecological harmony of the Lake, driving hundreds of other species to extinction. Now, the Perch is the greatest source of food that they have, except they have to export it abroad to afford to live, left only with the nasty parts that don’t make good fillets. In the doc’s most upsetting scene, a group of orphans scramble to get at a pot of fish mash. They’re nearly feral as they push and punch one another to get the best shares that they can. Even worse, the planes that carry off the fish often return bearing weapons that help fuel the continuing violence in the country. This is globalization at its worse: the losers of the economic game forced to fend for themselves off the scraps that the winners leave. But there’s nothing natural about this selection; it’s a rigged, unfair circumstance.

But while this is a place of animalistic competition, it is still populated by people, not animals. They still love and hope; they’ve just adapted to accept a harsher reality. One man hired as a night watchman for the processing plant calmly explains his methods of defense, such as a bow from which he shoots poisoned arrows. Street children straightforwardly tell how they lost their parents, or in some cases their limbs. In the movie’s most beautiful scene, Eliza confides her dreams of a better life to the camera while lying in a tent, lit only by candlelight. But here, beauty seems only the source of more heartache, and Eliza doesn’t get the happy ending she deserves. Her story left me reeling, as if I’d been shot in the gut and left to die in a back alley. It’s enough to make one despair, and yet every single subject of the film simply soldiers on.

The urgent question of “what can be done about this?” lingers over all the proceedings. We see foreign aid organizations come in to ponder the dilemma, but they can’t offer much. Just as much if not more weaponry is flowing in along with the food and medicine. And what creates that scarcity in the first place are other Europeans: the businessmen. The enemy is us, but to truly solve the problem would take the greatest modern blasphemy: to shackle capitalism. And we can’t have that. After all, that would be “unfair.” Meanwhile, what has happened to the Eliza’s of this world is perfectly “fair.” The strange thing is that, despite my sarcasm, this is technically true. By Darwin’s rules, these people are just the less fit reaping the natural consequences of natural selection. So much for civilization, then.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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