[Paleopsych] NYT: (Darwin's Nightmare) Feeding Europe, Starving at Home

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Feeding Europe, Starving at Home

    By [3]A. O. SCOTT

    [4]"Darwin's Nightmare," [5]Hubert Sauper's harrowing, indispensable
    documentary, is framed by the arrival and departure of an enormous
    Soviet-made cargo plane at an airstrip outside Mwanza, Tanzania. The
    plane, with its crew of burly Russians and Ukrainians, will leave
    Mwanza for Europe carrying 55 tons of processed fish caught by Lake
    Victoria fisherman and filleted at a local factory. Though Mr.
    Sauper's investigation of the economy and ecology around the lake
    ranges far and wide - he talks to preachers and prostitutes, to street
    children and former soldiers - he keeps coming back to a simple
    question. What do the planes bring to Africa?

    The answers vary. The factory managers say the planes' cavernous holds
    are empty when they land. One of the Russians, made uncomfortable by
    the question, mutters something vague about "equipment." Some of his
    colleagues, and several ordinary Mwanzans, are more forthright: the
    planes, while they occasionally bring humanitarian food and medical
    aid, more often bring the weapons that fuel the continent's endless
    and destructive wars.

    In any case, they leave behind a scene of misery and devastation that
    "Darwin's Nightmare" presents as the agonized human face of
    globalization. While the flesh of millions of Nile perch is stripped,
    cleaned and flash-frozen for export to wealthy countries, millions of
    people in the Tanzanian interior live on the brink of famine. Some of
    them will eat fried fish heads, which are processed in vast open-air
    pits infested with maggots and scavenging birds. Along the shores of
    the lake, homeless children fight over scraps of food and get high
    from the fumes of melting plastic-foam containers used to pack the
    fish. In the encampments where the fishermen live, AIDS is rampant and
    the afflicted walk back to their villages to die.

    The Nile perch itself haunts the film's infernal landscape like a
    monstrous metaphor. An alien species introduced into Lake Victoria
    sometime in the 1960's, it has devoured every other kind of fish in
    the lake, even feeding on its own young as it grows to almost
    grotesque dimensions, and destroying an ancient and diverse ecosystem.
    To some, its prevalence is a boon, since the perch provides an
    exportable resource that has brought development money from the World
    Bank and the European Union. The survival of nearly everyone in the
    film is connected to the fish: the prostitutes who keep company with
    the pilots in the hotel bars; the displaced farmers who handle the
    rotting carcasses; the night watchman, armed with a bow and a few
    poison-tipped arrows, who guards a fish-related research institute. He
    is paid $1 a day and found the job after his predecessor was murdered.

    Filming with a skeleton crew - basically himself and another camera
    operator - Mr. Sauper has produced an extraordinary work of visual
    journalism, a richly illustrated report on a distant catastrophe that
    is also one of the central stories of our time. Rather than use
    voice-over or talking-head expert interviews, he allows the dimensions
    of the story to emerge through one-on-one conversation and acutely
    observed visual detail.

    But "Darwin's Nightmare" is also a work of art. Given the gravity of
    Mr. Sauper's subject, and the rigorous pessimism of his inquiry, it
    may seem a bit silly to compliment him for his eye. There are images
    here that have the terrifying sublimity of a painting by El Greco or
    Hieronymus Bosch: rows of huge, rotting fish heads sticking out of the
    ground; children turning garbage into makeshift toys. At other
    moments, you are struck by the natural loveliness of the lake and its
    surrounding hills, or by the handsome, high-cheekboned faces of many
    of the Tanzanians.

    The beauty, though, is not really beside the point; it is an integral
    part of the movie's ethical vision, which in its tenderness and its
    angry sense of apocalypse seems to owe less to modern ideologies than
    to the prophetic rage of William Blake, who glimpsed heaven and hell
    at an earlier phase of capitalist development. Mr. Sauper's movie is
    clearly aimed at the political conscience of Western audiences, and
    its implicit critique of some of our assumptions about the shape and
    direction of the global economy deserves to be taken seriously. But
    its reach extends far beyond questions of policy and political
    economy, and it turns the fugitive, mundane facts that are any
    documentary's raw materials into the stuff of tragedy and prophecy.

    Darwin's Nightmare

    Opens today in Manhattan.

    Written (in English, Russian and Swahili, with English subtitles) and
    directed by [6]Hubert Sauper; director of photography, Mr. Sauper;
    edited by Denise Vindevogel; produced by Edouard Mauriat, Antonin
    Svoboda, Martin Gschlacht, Hubert Toint and Mr. Sauper; released by
    Celluloid Dreams/International Film Circuit. At the IFC Center, 323
    Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running
    time: 107 minutes. This film is not rated.



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