Friday, January 6, 2006

Review: Darwin's Nightmare (2005)

Darwin's Nightmare
107 minutes
not rated

by Scott Mendelson

Hubert Sauper's documentary Darwin's Nightmare feels like an unfinished product, full of interesting anecdotes and the occasional interesting idea, but never feeling like a complete film. It is a rushed, half-hazard work, seemingly rushed to meet a deadline. The film has no real connecting tissue and, shockingly enough, one of the central ideas is in fact cribbed from a different documentary, which Sauper shows us right in the middle of the film. It is a bad piece of would-be activism that has accidentally captured several moments of terrible potency. The activism for these issues is important, but this film is not.

The film is a 107-minute tour of the rampant poverty and desperation in Mwanza, Tanzania. We see testimonials from prostitutes, security guards, businessmen, and impoverished villagers. They all tell stories of starvation, disease, civil war, and the various kaleidoscopes of problems that pervade parts of Africa.

Eventually, a story presents itself. Some time ago (the film doesn't say but outside research brings up the 1960s) a business or government (the film doesn't say, but outside reading blames Russia) dumped a new breed of carnivorous fish into the Tanzanian waters. This fish provided an expensive and tasty new export from Tanzania to Europe. This fish also literally ate every other species of creature in the waters. This is bad for two reasons. First, these new 'fresh water killers' ate the fish which previously ate the various algae, seaweed, and other now polluting substances.

The bigger problem is that while many of the indigenous people were provided jobs at the new plants that caught, sorted, and prepared the new fish, the new fish were so expensive that no one in the villages could afford to buy them. The Tanzanian waters have been filled the fish that the Europeans love, while the indigenous people starve to death as their primary food source has been devoured by the new Nile Perch. The Africans get fish heads and leftovers, which are abandoned in areas that threaten the safety of those who collect them (one woman has had her eye swollen shut by fumes).

This story isn't actually told until halfway through the movie. Shockingly, it is told not through the lens of Sauper's footage, but through a secondary documentary 'Fresh Water Killer', that is played onscreen at a conference. Sauper doesn't lay this out himself, but rather points his camera at a TV screen and lets someone else tell the story. This is as lazy and unprofessional as a Holocaust documentary that merely pointed a camera at a TV showing Shoah or Night And Fog and hitting 'record'. The well-intentioned film is full of similar shoddy shortcuts. There is a running bit about a prostitute who was forced into the life and would rather study computers. Why her you ask? Because then it will be more poignant when she's murdered by a client toward the end of the film. Either the director filmed dozens of testimonials and picked out the one who got killed so as to add 'emotional impact', or he simply 'lucked out' when the very prostitute that he chose to focus on was the one who ended up dying. Either way, this coincidence is unnerving.

While the film may be not worth a recommendation, there are some interesting bits worth mentioning. It is never out and out stated, but we eventually learn that the planes that arrive to bring the fish back to Europe may in fact be carrying weapons to fuel the various African civil wars. Alas, much of the arms-dealing content is unproven innuendo. Most poignant is the interview of a security guard, who states that civil war may in fact be good for the starving people of Africa, since the best paying and most secure jobs are those found in the army. And, ironically, donations and aid are far less likely to be given during relative peacetime.

Darwin's Nightmare goes out of its way to tell a simple story in a complicated way, withholding information from the viewer for the sake of 'gotcha' moments later in the narrative. While the subject matter is interesting and quite tragic, it's not a very good film. It's the sort of factual documentary where reading other reviews of the documentary or Google-ing topics related to the film will bring one far more information than the film itself. I learned more reading about the subject matter before and after seeing this film then I did during. Those seeking knowledge might be inclined to skip the movie altogether.

Grade: C

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