Indie Nightmare

I watched Darwin's Nightmare last night, an indie documentary that is allegedly about the Nile perch's obliteration of native species in Lake Victoria. With a title like that, I was settling in for a riveting tale of man's careless introduction of an alien species into the fragile Lake Victoria habitat, and a naturalist's take on the devastating effect of the introduced species, like the cane toad in Australia, or the mountain pine beetle in North American forests. Maybe it would be narrated by David Attenborough to boot.

Instead I got everything but that. The point of the documentary wasn't the perch at all. In interviews with European pilots who flew out 55 tons of fish in a single load, Tanzanian prostitutes who serviced them, Indo-Tanzanians who were the entrepeneurs of the companies thriving on the fish trade, and dirt poor black Tanzanians who barely subsisted on the shore, the message was this: the outsiders are just as voraciously and rapaciously consuming native Africans as the Nile perch consumed Lake Victoria's diverse bounty. The 'West' has homogenized and devoured the Africa that was there before. In an endless convoy, the massive planes arrive in Africa laden with ordinance, and return to Europe laden with fish. Fish that is too expensive for the fishermen who catch them to eat. As one Russian pilot observed after a December weapons run to Angola then return via South Africa to Europe, "For Christmas, African children get guns. European children get grapes."

I struggled through passages of this film. The sound was good, but the digital video was frequently shaky and poorly composed. Sometimes conversations were allowed to ramble without purpose. And at the end of it, I felt the weight of a lot of guilt.

It is sometimes hard to enjoy the fruits of my good fortune. In the world's lottery, I won just by being born here. What do I need a million dollar jackpot for when I have health, security of person, security of property, job security, education, a pantry and freezer full of food, and a house full of my four kids and wife? This is the jackpot.

While the film does depict some nightmarish scenes, I don't know how much Darwin or natural selection has to do with it. Director Hubert Sauper shows children collecting styrofoam fish packaging, melting it down, then inhaling the volatilized chemicals to get high. He shows women sifting through heaps of decomposing fish carcasses to lay them on racks in the sun so they can be dried, fried, and consumed. The maggots wriggling up through the ooze between their toes turned my stomach. The bitter irony of the World Bank and European Union's pride at what they have wrought in the fish industry was not lost on Sauper; he juxtaposes a self-congratulatory EU press conference with headlines of famine and millions of dollars of emergency food aid. In achieving the quality standards that make these fish fit for consumption abroad, the industry has priced itself beyond the reach of nearly all Africans.

Though not what I expected, Darwin's Nightmare was worth suffering through.


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