Darwin’s Nightmare

(Hubert Sauper, Austria, 2004)


The outstanding documentary Darwin’s Nightmare does not reveal its hand all at once. In the opening scenes, we observe the fishing industry of Mwanza, Africa. Huge planes arrive empty, we are told, and depart full. Local fishermen are kept very busy. The natural bounty of Lake Victoria seems endless in this cradle of civilisation.

From the start, however, there are jarring notes. Children wander the streets. There is a roaring trade in prostitution. One wonders, in this economic set-up that pits well-dressed bosses and partying pilots against the local population scrambling for jobs, where the government and its regulations fit in.

Piece by piece, director Hubert Sauper lays out the true situation behind the facade. Those pilots are bringing in arms for African war zones. The government is complicit in generating an unregulated industry that creates famine throughout Tanzania. Disease runs rampant. And that bountiful catch of Nile Perch is the result of a ‘little experiment’ fifty years previously that has destroyed the ecological balance of Lake Victoria.

One of the most notable and paradoxical aspects of the film is its humour. What begins as drollness, as we watch a lone air traffic controller, in the midst of his daily chaos, swatting bees, gradually escalates into the blackest of comedies. Irony piles upon irony, from the toy fish in a businessman’s office which sings "Don’t Worry, Be Happy", to the guilty admission of a pilot: "African children receive guns for Christmas, European children receive grapes."

Although Sauper is an extremely artful filmmaker, he avoids the overly aesthetic touches that have marred many recent documentaries. There is no plangent classical music or sombre slow motion shots. Voice-over narration is replaced by short, explanatory intertitles. The result of this careful style is that, although what the film shows is certainly depressing, it is not an arthouse sledgehammer that stuns the viewer into passivity.

In his brilliant book The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford University Press, 2004), Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that, in the modern world, politics has shrunken to biopolitics: the relentless harvesting and exploitation of natural resources, set alongside the reduction of humanity to a miserable ‘bare life’. Darwin’s Nightmare sets out the logic of this biopolitical regime with devastating clarity.

The film gives us a remarkable insight into the ideological justifications, on every level of politics, religion and everyday life, that allow such a disaster to keep on occurring. A pastor bemoans the rising toll of death from AIDS-related diseases, but cannot urge his congregation to use condoms since "sex outside marriage is a sin". A Russian pilot who flies the planes into Mwanza refuses to acknowledge his own complicity with the situation, declaring instead that "black people don’t want to work". Politicians and businessman who gather for chummy conferences disparage critical news reports by countering that journalists "ignore the positive side".

Let us hope that these same captains of industry will be made to watch Darwin’s Nightmare in its entirety at their next gabfest – and that Sauper’s camera will be there, once again, to watch how they try to wriggle out of the hot seat.

MORE political documentary: Life and Debt, Bowling for Columbine

© Adrian Martin August 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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