[Paleopsych] NYT: (Darwin's Nightmare) Feeding Europe, Starving at Home
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Thu Aug 4 22:39:15 UTC 2005
Feeding Europe, Starving at Home
By A. O. SCOTT
"Darwin's Nightmare," 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.
Opens today in Manhattan.
Written (in English, Russian and Swahili, with English subtitles) and
directed by 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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