While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. We decided this time to focus on DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE by Hubert Sauper. This 2005 film is now available on DVD and has been reviewed by Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt.
In 2006, Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper was nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE. Though the film lost out to another European production, MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, it is worth a look back at this film as an example of a multi-layered look at globalization. Sauper's vision is dark, his pictures are disturbing and the realities he uncovers are uncomfortable. But, through his films, it is clear that Sauper is an highly intelligent filmmaker who has a deep understanding of the political, social and economical complexities of the realities he is filming. As I was watching this film, I was grateful for it, because so many western films dealing with Africa are made by filmmakers who do not take the time to to get involved with the situation and do not spend enough time the with characters to gain their trust. The results are superficial films where the filmmaker is speaking for the people and over-relying on narration to explain everything which is not delivered from the film itself.
Sauper's approach is different. I still remember scenes of his 1998 documentary KISANGANI DIARY: FAR FROM RWANDA, in which he follows Hutu refugees after an attack against their camp in what was then Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of Congo). There is always a strong commitment of Sauper to his topic and his characters and that is what makes his films so remarkable. In DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE, Saupert transports us to Tanzania, to the small town of Mwanza on the shores of Africa's biggest lake Victoria. We learn that the town sees a lot of business because of the massive exports of a fish called the Nile Perch. This species of fish was not known in that lake before the 1960s when it was introduced to the lake. A predatory species, the fish multiplied, but also caused the extinction of other species to the point that the lake could be considered a mono culture.
And here starts the complexity of the problem: We are at a lake which is ecologically out of balance waiting for a disaster. The export of the fish is seemingly good for the development of Mwanza because it gives jobs to tousands of people who work in a processing plant. Two airplanes come every day from Russia to this little town to load in 500 tons of frozen, packaged fish fillets and fly them back to the restaurants and dining rooms of Europe. The daily cargo could feed the little town for a long time, but the villagers don't get to see the fish fillets because after the fish has gone through he modern processing plant, they cannot afford the fish. The only thing the locals get to see and eat are the leftovers of the factory: the carcass head of the fish. Thousands of these rotting fish heads are piled up on a beach nearby Mwanza. As the camera pans across all these fish heads and the people who carry them away in buckets, one can just say that all this is not fair. That we are one more time before an example of crude exploitation by Northern countries, in this case Europe, towards the South. The fact that the film was shot during a time when Tanzania was hard hit by famine makes this situation even more unbearable.
But Saupert does not want us to focus too much on the fish. For him, the fish business is a by-product of the bigger story which he wants to unfold to the public. There is a rumor that the transport airplanes don't just depart with fish, but also bring weapons and munitions to conflicts in other African countries. The story was on the news and a local journalist claims to have evidence. Of course, we never see weapons unload from the planes in Mwanza. People asked on the streets are convinced that the planes are empty when they come. Though Sauper asks the Russian pilots again and again, they won't tell and simply lower their heads in silence. But once the thought is introduced by the film, we can not get rid of it. Tanzania is bordered by countries with a very recent history of war: Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda and it is not much further a plane ride to other hotspots. As one of the pilots cynically says, "The children of Europe receive grapes for Christmas, the children of Angola receive guns." You would have to be naive to believe that airplanes come empty from Russia just to load fish. What a lost opportunity that would be for the international weapon smuggling networks! As we watch the locals of Mwanza tilt their heads to see another airplane crossing above them in the sky, we draw our own conclusions.
It is this lack of proof which some may find troubling, especially those who are accustomed to seeing journalistic-style documentaries where proof is so key to storytelling. But Sauper makes clear in the film that he has his own point of view and that he is not hesitating to impose his own truth. It is now up to the viewer if he or she wants to share that view. I can say that my colleague, Erica Ginsberg, has had challenges with the film for this reason and also because she believes that the film is ultimately so dark and hopeless that it leaves the audience with little reaction but to feel despair and maybe give up eating Nile Perch.
Indeed you could argue that Sauper focuses too much on the dark side, on the side of African despair. Through his eyes it seems that the village of Mwanza is populated by a collection of glue-sniffing kids living on the streets, prostitutes plying their trade to the Russian pilots and occasionally to the migrant workers, families reduced to half of their size because of the effects of AIDS, and the assorted foreigners involved in the processing and export of the fish. He takes us inside the lives of these characters. We meet them in close conversations and engage with them because the filmmaker captures them as they laugh, sing, and share their dreams. The camera is always very close to the subjects. Sauper has obviously spent a lot of time with them to get them to feel comfortable opening up, as though in a conversation. The moments breathe. When we hear a prostitute sing a song “Tanzania, Tanzania” with a big smile on her face, we understand how proud she is of her country in spite of its dire circumstances. She says she dreams of getting a better education. A street kid aspires to become an engineer. These dreams are authentic and valuable but we are already so drawn into the hopelessness of their lives, that we know full well these dreams cannot be fulfilled. Not in the world Sauper portrays.
And here Sauper leaves us alone with a situation which seems not to have a solution. Yes, the dark side is a truth in Africa but it is far from the only one. It is hard to believe that there are not other normal people in this town with a positive take on the situation. People for example who work in the factory and have benefited from the fish business, even if it is on the sacrifice of the lake. People who are working their way out the circle of poverty because they have a job and they now can improve their living condition and send their kids to school. But Sauper does not enter that terrain.
Maybe Sauper thought by bringing in more diverse voices, the message of the film would be in jeopardy, but here he is mistaken. Bringing in positive voices would have made the situation more complete and would have given the people from Tanzania respect. Now we just feel miserable for them.
DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE feels like a “film noir.” It is not an activist film which presents a problem and suggests a solution. Instead it helps shed light on a place that few of us would have the likelihood to visit and yet which is impacted by our actions or lack of action.
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