"Darwin's Nightmare" starts slowly, hypnotically, like a cobra with all the time in the world to strike. It immerses you in its reality one toe at a time, until suddenly you are in over your head, gasping for air as the horror of the situation reveals itself in all its savage devastation.
The most impressive of the five documentaries nominated for the Academy Award, "Darwin's Nightmare" details the specific kind of horror that seems to happen only in Africa, the perennial ground zero of the West's zeal for undeveloped natural resources. Written and directed by Hubert Sauper, the film offers an unblinking picture of societal collapse caused by the insidious effects of state-sanctioned predatory capitalism as it plays out in the African nation of Tanzania.
Yet for all its unapologetic passion, "Darwin's Nightmare" does not bang you over the head, choosing instead to let its story be discovered. Filmmaker Sauper, who also did his own photography, takes the time to talk to what at first seems like a random collection of marginal people, showing us life as it's lived around Tanzania's Lake Victoria from a multitude of interwoven points of view.
The nightmare of the title, we are told, began in a similarly soft way. "It was just one man who brought the fish with one bucket on one afternoon and poured it in the lake," an eyewitness recounts. "That was it, all scientific discussion was over, the fish was there." The fish was the Nile perch, a voracious nonnative predator that can grow to enormous size. Once inserted in the lake some time in the 1960s, it ate everything in sight, decimating 213 separate species, destroying thousands of years of evolution (hence the film's title) and turning the world's largest tropical lake into a barren sinkhole.
Yet the first time we hear about this invasive presence we are told, by owners of factories on the lake's shore, how good the fish's presence is for the country's economy. Hundreds of millions of tons of the perch, reduced by those factories to plastic-wrapped filets, feed millions of diners in Europe and Japan and account for 25% of Tanzania's exports overseas.
The reality on the ground, however, tells a different story. The lake turns out to be ringed by settlements characterized by poverty and disease; everything that the fish touches impoverishes and destroys the culture that it lives off.
It's not just that salaries are negligible, which would be sad enough, but that a famine is ravaging Tanzania while all this fish is being exported. Nile perch is simply too expensive for the local people to afford; they have to make do, as vivid footage makes unforgettable, with picking among something like a million maggoty fish skeletons for whatever sustenance they can provide.
Everywhere "Darwin's Nightmare" turns, it sees aspects of societal disintegration, aspects that connect to each other in a chilling chain of causality.
Because the perch is so enormous, fishing on the lake is quite dangerous. This is especially true for divers employed to herd the fish into nets, who are at risk from crocodile attacks. When the men die from these and other causes, their wives often turn to prostitution, where they both contract and pass on AIDS, an even more major cause of local death. The insistence of pastors that condoms are forbidden for moral reasons simply makes the deaths more prevalent.
All this mortality means that local cities are overrun by brawling, begging gangs of orphaned street kids. These urchins are often incapacitated and made vulnerable to sexual assault because of their habit of inhaling glue fumes. Fumes, it turns out, that come from the melting down of discarded fish factory material.
Everywhere "Darwin's Nightmare" turns, this kind of fatal interconnection, these links in a process of exploitation and fatality, are observed. The Russian pilots who fly in enormous but empty Ilyushin planes help create a thriving market for local prostitution, one of the many occupations that spoil dreams, waste lives and lead to the high likelihood of early death. And exactly why those planes fly in empty, a revelation that the film leaves until the end, is yet another link in the chain.
To see "Darwin's Nightmare" unfold all these relationships in its quiet, unassuming way is to be totally devastated. Filmmaker Sauper put himself in harm's way numerous times to get so inside the situation, and the intimacy of his technique, his willingness to avoid hectoring voice-overs and simply talk quietly with his subjects, adds compelling believability. The title of "Darwin's Nightmare," we finally come to understand, has more than one meaning. It refers not just to the destruction of the lake but to what happens when the notion of survival of the fittest is applied to human society. Unregulated capitalism's appeal to human greed, its willingness to put profit above everything else, may be strong enough to defeat all comers, but can be a poisonous system to live under and a difficult one to escape.
MPAA rating: Unrated.