(Premiere Date: September 01, 2004 [Italy - Venice Film Festival])
(US Release Date: June 01, 2005 [San Francisco Green Screen Environmental Film Festival])
Hubert Sauper and the rest of the makers of the Oscar Nominated Documentary Film Darwin's Nightmare invite you to take a closer look at Darwinism and, by extension, "Survival of the Fittest". Sauper focuses on Lake Victoria in the African nation of Tanzania. Lake Victoria (Victoria Nyanza) is the greatest of the great lakes of Africa, it's the second largest Fresh Water lake on Earth, and is the largest Tropical Lake on Earth. For generations it flourished with a cornucopia of life. In the 1950's a new fish, the Nile Perch, was introduced into the waters of Lake Victoria with the belief that it would increase the yield of fish that fisherman could take.
The theory was right.
What was not foreseen was the devastating effect the Nile Perch would have on Lake Victoria. The Nile Perch came in hungry and devastated virtually every other form of life, making many native species of Fish extinct. This includes those fish whose job was to consume the waste and algae of the water. Flash forward to 2002. The fittest have most certainly survived. Then the fittest of the survivors have turned to cannibalism. Everything else has been wiped out except this one fish, and they now are destroying themselves.
Simultaneously, Sauper takes us to the surrounding Tanzanian villages whose livelihood is connected directly to the fish trade. The Perch are still around, by the ton, so naturally the villages should be flourishing, right? Unfortunately, if you'll pardon the pun, there are bigger fishes in the sea. Europeans, Americans, Japanese and more all consume fish fillets. Every day planes arrive, and take the fish away into Europe. The livelihood of these surrounding villages are still tied to the fish trade and the lake. Therefore, the people are not flourishing.
Farmers have become fishermen by day, and some of the lucky ones, security guards by night. Pay depends on your job and how many hours one is able to put in. One particular dusk till dawn job pays one dollar per day. Men are happy to get the job. Women do what they can. Some join their male counterparts in the filleting factories. Others sell their bodies, to the fishermen, and to the white pilots. One particularly well-paid subject makes about ten dollars per night.
The fittest are still surviving.
The answer seems so obvious. It isn't. At least not to those conditioned to accept this way of life. One factory worker is asked if the people around this area ever eat the fish. The answer is an unqualified "no". The industry pays them for their work and to harvest their own fish from the lake they have lived on for generations. However, the fish is too expensive to be bought by the local population, given their income. Sauper asks the same man if it's true that there is a famine in Tanzania. The answer is an unqualified "yes".
Sauper makes it very clear that these people are not stupid. Many are denied education, many are illiterate, but in the entire 107 minutes of this film, I saw no stupid people. They have, however, been conditioned to be happy with what they get. To this end we see bad go to worse. The fish heads, skeletons and scales (in short, the mostly inedible) is dumped into the mud of the villages for the people to "thrive" on. How generous. Of course the people have to vie for the "fish frames" with the birds and the flies. Do I have to tell you that where there are flies there are maggots? Did you even want to know?
Sauper brings us farther throughout this life, showing violence, prostitution and makeshift drug use, all as symptoms of this desperation. We see the ravages of AIDS, the ominous shadows of war, and we see the educated and the religious asking the questions to which answers come hard. We see pristine, clean airplanes take off from well kept strips within walking distance of where boys fight each other for hands full of rice. Girls get their rice in other ways.
If this review sounds as if it's biased, I assure you, it is. This is a powerful and provocative documentary that lays bare a serious situation that is greatly affecting one group of great, smart and hard working people. However, Sauper himself doesn't come off as biased. While he does ask many questions, the impression is given that the camera is recording what is there, not simply leading the participants to his own end.
I say that with one condition. Often subtitles are present (in English) to translate not only the speech of foreign tongues, but sometimes to translate English as well. Listening to the English and reading the English shows a bit of a disconnect. Not great, but noticeable to students of language, I have no doubt. So often context is vital in translation, and the subtitle translators appear to be shooting for what these people intend to say, not necessarily what they say directly. Therefore, what if the translators are wrong? A single word can change the meaning of a sentence. What if the change isn't representative of intent. By extension, what if the translation of non-English speech is similarly transposed? It's hard to imagine that this is a great, great flaw, because the actions we see speak much louder than the words. However, the words speak volumes as well. Therefore, I urge you to keep your eyes and ears open.
I urge this because I urge you to see this film. Sure, it's great to make up your own mind. When a short documentary about the destruction and deoxygenating damage being done to Lake Victoria is shown to a group of high-level delegates of these surrounding nations, this is dismissed as biased and not showing the more positive aspects of what is going on. Perhaps that's true. However, when this discussion leads directly into a plan for how to "Sell Our Country", it's hard for the tuned in and intelligent viewer to not feel a chill.
Sauper doesn't deny Darwinism, and he doesn't deny evolution. He does, however, show that this can be and has been proven to not always be the process in which we reach toward the best of all possible worlds. Darwin's Nightmare might as well be Voltaire's Nightmare. And it might as well be mine. Sadly, the answers are still hard to come by. Those who know what's going on have still been conditioned to accept these things, whether we have a freezer full of dinner or we're picking fish pieces from maggoty mud. Maybe Evolution needs a little hand sometimes. Maybe we should question who gets to decide who really is "The Fittest".
Four and One Half Stars out of Five for Darwin's Nightmare. Maybe I'm just another comfortable American White Male. Maybe. But I make no jokes here, and that says a lot, coming from me. What's the answer? I don't know, but I want to see the questions asked more often. After all, can we really believe that only Lake Victoria is afflicted by this nightmare? Can we really believe that Tanzania is a global anomaly? No. These are mere hatch marks in the overall score card of our Darwinist Society. It's easy to turn away, because these are not easy things to look at, however, we can't pass a test we don't take, and we can't take a test with a blank page, and we can't answer the questions without the questions being asked. Think about it.
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