Not only Darwin’s nightmare

Darwins NightmareWhen he introduced the screening of his documentary at UCCS on Wednesday, Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper told us that for the five years he had worked on the project, DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE had been his nightmare. Sauper predicted that in two hours, after we’d seen it, the story would become our nightmare.
The film was billed as a tale of fish, men and guns. The American release poster features only fish heads. It was about all three, and about just one as well.

I have no qualms about spoiling the story for you because this film is not available in the U.S. The copy we saw did not even have English subtitles. They’re having difficulty finding distribution because Darwin’s Nightmare is worse than an unhappy story, it portends ill for us all.

That it was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary, losing to The March of the Penguins, has meant that Darwin’s Nightmare will enjoy some success. Sauper is happy that he did not win the top award because the higher visibility would mean he could no longer make such an incidiary film.

He could certainly not have made this one. Sauper had to smuggle himself unto cargo planes, into foreboding factories, slums, houses of prostitution and some places for which no description is suitably odious, to tell a story that no one wanted told.

The fish tale begins with the Nile Perch, introduced by scientists into lake Victoria many years back. Like so many other foreign species introduced by man into otherwise balanced ecosystems, the Nile Perch has proved itself a voracious predator and today all the biodiversity of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, is gone. No more other fish, no more anything else. Now the water is no longer getting aerated, so the perch are dying. And without prey, the perch are feeding on their own young. The lake could soon end up a sink hole.

Sauper’s film is a parable. Top preditors can out-eat their supply, even devour their own. Is this film about fish and men?

There’s more to the fish tale. Once Lake Victoria was filling with oversized perch, factories grew on the banks to process the fish fillets and ship them to Europe. The fish became too expensive for the locals to eat. Now the fishermen themselves can only afford to eat fish heads.

All the perch fillets are sold to Europe, in return for guns to fuel the incessant warfare in the Congo. Ordinary westerners can wonder: where do war torn regions get their endless supplies of guns? Westerners who are gun manufacturers know where they come from, and precisely how many have been shipped and where. This was the deadly secret that Sauper uncovered: the same planes used to bring in UN relief supplies brought guns as well. The fish denied to the local malnurished population are being sold to buy guns.

There’s more of course. The kids are sniffing glue, a byproduct of the packaging process. Widows become prostitutes. People lives are foreshortened by working among the decaying fish skeletons being rendered for subhuman consumption, and of course, the entire population is being decimated by AIDS. We forget about that one. And the church is still preaching against the use of condoms.

We learn that when a fisherman finds himself too weak to work, he must hasten to the village of his birth so that he may be buried there. The price of transportation, once he is dead, goes way up.

We learn that when a fisherman dies, his wife has little choice but to become a prostitute. Unleashing the HIV cycle again.

We see a fish factory supervisor who has a fake stuffed fish on a plaque. Flick a switch on the back and his tail moves to a recording of “Don’t worry be happy.”

We learn what feeding time looks like among street children. Someone rustles up a pot, someone rustles up some gruel, they cook it and the moment someone’s guard is down, everyone reaches into the pot with both hands. Those caught without a handful are left to chase and beat those that who aren’t able to gobble their catch with sufficient haste.

Hauper explained in his notes that this tale of the developed world cannibalizing on the undeveloped world could be told anywhere. If it wasn’t fish in Africa, it is bananas in Central America, it is tea or coffee or sugar anywhere. It’s a tale of indegenous peoples not being allowed even a subsistence on their own bountiful lands. It’s a tale of Europeans or Americans who require the resources of the poor to sustain their unseemly standards of living.

I don’t know if bananas would tell the tale of a obscenely large unatural predator that’s feeding on everything and will eventually asphyxiate itself.

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Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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