Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)

Director: Hubert Sauper

Writer: Hubert Sauper


Runtime: 107 min

Official website:

I finally managed to watch Hubert Sauper’s Oscar nominated documentary Darwin’s Nightmare I had the DVD for about 2 months from Netflix). This is really a “must watch” documentary.

The idea for this documentary was born during Sauper’s research on another documentary KISANGANI DIARY that follows Rwandese refugees during the Congolese rebellion.

In 1997, I witnessed for the first time the bizarre juxtaposition of two gigantic airplanes, both bursting with food. The first cargo jet brought 45 tons of yellow peas from America to feed the refugees in the nearby UN camps. The second plane took off for the European Union, weight with 50 tons of fresh fish.
I met the Russian pilots and we became "kamarads". But soon it turned out that the rescue planes with yellow peas also carried arms to the same destinations, so that the same refugees that were benefiting from the yellow peas could be shot at later during the nights.

At some point in the 60’s someone introduced the “Nile Perch” (It is one the largest fresh water fish capable of growing up to six feet and weigh almost 200 kg about 440 lb) a fish that is not native to Lake Victoria in Tanzania as a kind of scientific experiment. The perch is a fierce natural predator and has since taken over the lake and can be held responsible for causing the extinction or near-extinction of several hundred native species especially the native cichlids. In the face of the declining numbers of cichlids, in a macabre twist it has now taken to devouring its own young. So while the perch has destroyed native species it has given rise to a booming commercial fish industry almost completely dependent on the perch, a fish so expensive that the Tanzanians cannot afford it, but is made in to filets and exported to European markets with a huge appetite for the fish.

Saupert armed with a hand held camera and the barest of narration, documents the lives and conditions under which they live and work. The documentary is framed by the arrival and departure of gigantic Soviet made cargo planes, at an airport in Mwanza, Tanzania along Lake Victoria. Each plane will carry 55 tons of perch fillets processed by a local factory and caught by local fishermen.

Saupert examines the economy and ecology around the lake. As the documentary unfolds we learn of the famine in Central Tanzania which causes migration of people from the hinterlands to the lake. The people working in the industry around the fish settle in one of “thousand islands” working colonies which consist of young fishermen and prostitutes from the back country who work amongst them and call themselves as girlfriends of the many “pilots” of the planes that fly out with perch filets.

Particularly touching is the story of Eliza who is a girlfriend to many pilots (photo is of hers from the documentary), who wants to get out and go to school. She is killed by an Australian client of hers.

There also those here afflicted with the scourge of AIDS who have nowhere left to go but back to their homes to die.

These aren’t the only players that we get to meet, we see the fish factory managers, African ministers, street children some of whom are fighting over scraps of food cooked from the skeletal remains of perch and getting high from sniffing the melting plastic containers used to pack the fish and EU officials all interested in furthering this trade in fish. I have seen a lot of poverty in India but that scene of the children fighting over the scraps of food just broke my heart.

But these are not the only scenes in the movie that will grab you, there are shots of rows of fish heads sticking out of the ground, rotting skeletal remains of the fish being hung out to dry, or being eaten after cooked in open air pits and also serving as make shift toys. There are shots of the remains of some planes on the banks of the lake Victoria that were so overloaded with fish that they could not make it out. The natural shots of the lake are stunning and for a moment lulled me to the nature of the ecological disaster within its waters.

Saupert’s movie is a visual masterpiece because it does not have much of a narration. It lets the story reveal itself thru the riveting images of the people simple conversations and of landscape in a place where all their lives are tied to this fish.

Darwin’s Nightmare” is a harrowing look at the human cost of untrammeled globalization, which does not leave anyone untouched and is meant to appeal to our conscience. I will quote Saupert’s words to end this post..

The old question, which social and political structure is the best for the world seems to have been answered. Capitalism has won. The ultimate forms for future societies are "consumer democracies", which are seen as "civilized" and "good". In a Darwinian sense the "good system" won. It won by either convincing its enemies or eliminating them.

In DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE I tried to transform the bizarre success story of a fish and the ephemeral boom around this "fittest" animal into an ironic, frightening allegory for what is called the New World Order. I could make the same kind of movie in Sierra Leone, only the fish would be diamonds, in Honduras, bananas, and in Libya, Nigeria or Angola, crude oil.


Lotus Reads said...

Sanj, what an excellent review you wrote. It was gripping, informative and totally engrossing! I had no idea that the perch fish, artificially introduced to Tanzanian lakes, had caused the depletion of their own native fish. How sad that those people must go without fish (such a wholesome source of omega-3 fatty acids) just so that Europeans can enjoy this expensive fish.

I don't know if refusing to buy perch fish here in Canada would make any difference to the plight of the Tanzanians...for one thing, we probably do not import (Nile) perch and secondly, if catching perch is the livelihood of so many of these fishermen, then one doesn't want to do anything to deprive them of it.

The communities that have sprung up around the lakes remind me of the mining communities of South Africa which are hotbeds for spreading the HIV virus. I feel so sorry for the women that have to ply this trade and for the fishermen's wives who will eventually catch the virus from their husbands.

You truly make me want to see this documentary. I recently saw "Blood Diamond" and it was hard to watch...I would imagine that "Darwin's Nightmare" with its actual footage and interviews will be a lot harder to take (thank you for sharing that clip with us, it gave me a feel for the documentary which I know is a "must-see")

The curse of the African people always has been their corrupt and cruel leaders. Mandela is the exception but sadly he is now a spent force. The current President of South Africa has a string of cases (sexual and corruption) against him and isn't he the idiot that went on record to say that AIDS was not caused by HIV? Poor Africa!

Sanjay said...

Hey there my friend, thank you so very much for stopping by and for your most wonderful comment. Until I heard about this documentary and saw it, I had no idea either about Nile Perch and the havoc that this predator has wreaked underwater and effect it has had on the people of Tanzania. It is sad as you point out that the people can no longer eat the native species like cichlids. In another perverse effect of the perch as the dominant fish in Lake Victoria is that, the perch carcasses have a higher fat content, so to cook this fish takes more energy which is from firewood, from cutting down trees which in turn adds to deforestation which is already a problem.

I don't know if refusing to buy perch fish here in Canada would make any difference to the plight of the Tanzanians...for one thing, we probably do not import (Nile) perch and secondly, if catching perch is the livelihood of so many of these fishermen, then one doesn't want to do anything to deprive them of it.

You make a great point there. We in North America mostly get the smaller yellow perch native to our parts. And the livelihood issue is a valid one, perch exports make up about 35% of Tanzania’s exports and are a source of income for them, but you can probably guess as to who is making most of the money.

The communities that have sprung up around the lakes remind me of the mining communities of South Africa which are hotbeds for spreading the HIV virus
That is truly a great observation! I never thought of that.

The documentary is a bit hard to watch but it is a much needed chronicling of the havoc man’s interference (well meaning or not) can have on the environment. I actually saw the first 30 mins of the documentary the first time more than a month ago and for me it started off slow. But I was tired that day, when I revisited it later, I saw it again from the start and it completely captivated me. I hope this documentary does not disappoint you.

Thabo Mbeki the current President despite his pivotal role next to Mandela in the country’s freedom struggle will unfortunately be more known for his idiotic comments about AIDS.

I agree that Africa has often had poor leaders but that is changing. Mozambique is one country that comes to mind, a stable democracy it has been enjoying pretty good economic growth recently.

Thank you very much for your comment. I truly enjoyed reading what you had to say. Hope your week ahead is great.

Keshi said...

u do some very intrigueing reviews Sanjay!

How hv ya been? Hot new half-pic of ur's there ;-)


priya said...


My blog name is changed to

Id it is said...

A nightmare indeed! I too had never heard of this fish and the havoc it's causing in Tanzania, To rid ourselves of some guilt: the US is not one of Tanzania's major trading partners; it's mostly Europe and India where the exported perch goes.

I wonder how the Perch came to those waters...was it another case like that of the Katzu, the wild growing vine from the far-east that is suffocating hundreds of miles of forests in South Eastern US!

Coffee-Drinking Woman said...

I tend to enjoy documentaries quite a bit. I believe I'll add this one to my list of things to watch (when I have time, some decade...).

Anonymous said...

hey1 how r u? long time :)