"And when you stare persistently into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you."
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Okay, a synopsis of Darwin’s Nightmare (see "Hell On Wheels..." below for a lead-in):
The documentary deals with the effects of globalization on the people living near the shores of Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Tanzania. More specifically, the film focuses on the Nile Perch, a large predatory fish artificially introduced into the waters of Lake Victoria more than 40 years ago, presumably by some enterprising businessmen. The goal of these hyperopic mavericks, apparently, was to boost the local fishing industry.
They got their boost all right, and then some. The Nile Perch was so voracious that it devoured every other species of fish in the lake. Prey became so scarce that the fish began cannibalizing its young for sustenance. The result of this decades-long feeding frenzy was a population explosion of algae and other organisms that used to be food for the smaller fish that disappeared down the gullet of the Nile Perch. Now, the burgeoning algae masses have depleted the level of oxygen in Lake Victoria, threatening to suffocate the very creatures to whom they owe their reproductive success.
But no worries. The Nile Perch is one tasty fish, and fetches a hefty profit on the European market. In fact, there is such a demand for this delicacy that several planes arrive in Mwanza daily—mostly from the Ukraine—with the express purpose of leaving with as much packaged perch as they can carry. (Indeed, in a darkly humorous scene, we are shown the broken hulls and decapitated cockpits of unlucky aircraft that litter the runways near the shores, victims of their own greed in taking on too much cargo.) The incoming planes deliver munitions to other areas in Africa before arriving in Mwanza, helping to sustain the many wars that continue to ravage the continent. For the pilots (and their employers), it’s a win-win situation; the planes have to make the trip to pick up the fish, might as well put them to good use on the way over. Of course, the planes could bring in medicine and food for the destitute, as the film implies, but that stuff’s just not profitable. And while they wait for the planes to load up, the pilots help themselves to the local prostitutes; it is a symbiotic—though not equally so—relationship, an unintentional byproduct of the fishing industry, a lesser example of the plundering of Africa’s resources by the Western world (think diamonds).
European demand for the Nile Perch is so great that, as with coffee in parts of Latin America, fishing becomes the number one industry in Tanzania, so much so that many traditional professions simply disappear in the pursuit of higher wages. Farmers become fishermen in a twist of irony that produces food for foreigners while the locals go hungry. Well, not exactly hungry. There is the daily supply of fish heads and tails left over after the local (foreign owned) packing plant has processed the day’s catch. In a scene not for the squeamish, the camera shows us several indigents standing among piles of fish scraps crawling with maggots, as they pick through the carrion for the best morsels to be boiled for soup.
Hubert Sauper, the director of the film, shows us more than he tells us about the plight of the citizens of Mwanza as they are subjected to the darkest side of globalization. His weapon of enlightenment is a handheld camera, and this low-tech approach works well for him as he interviews fishermen, orphans, prostitutes, plant employees, and local politicians. The footage is raw and unscripted, and the film is rife with sadness punctuated only occasionally by unexpected bursts of accidental humor. The story is not a new one, but thanks to Sauper's innovative style, it becomes almost a personal one, with the power to really make you think about the hidden costs of luxury and privilege.
I wish I could say that I made it back to Grosvenor Auditorium to see some more of the films sponsored by Amnesty International, but alas, fate had other plans. I did manage to bike into Shirlington for the Capitol City Oktoberfest on Saturday, despite Lady Nature throwing everything she had at us after holding back on the precip for so long. Oh well, the Chocolate Donut beer from the Shenandoah Brewing Company booth more than made up for the inclement weather.