Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sample critics' blurb: "Darwin's Nightmare is a filmgoer's wet dream!"

For some reason there doesn't appear to be a dvd release upcoming anytime soon, but if you have the Sundance channel or Comcast on Demand you have almost the entire rest of summer to catch one of the most cruelly ironic documentaries I've ever seen: Darwin's Nightmare. Primarily focusing on the lasting effects of introducing the Nile Perch into Tanzania's Lake Victoria, the film soon spreads out to encompass the effects of globalization on the region as a whole and also offers up an almost surreal array of images of African poverty. The Perch basically destroyed the lake's ecosystem by wiping out nearly every other species of fish in the area, yet it multiplied so fast and it's fillets are so valuable in Europe that selling it has become highly profitable... but not for Tanzanians. Throughout the film, ex-Soviet cargo planes take off for European countries loaded with fish meat, while later the filmmakers show a ghastly market swarming with maggots, where the fish heads and other refuse are sold to locals. Oh, and what are those cargo planes bringing into the country when they arrive at the laxly guarded Tanzanian airport? Nothing at all for Africans, as the viewer and the film's interviewees initially believe; yet later it's revealed they're actually bringing weapons and ammunition for guerilla groups in the civil war-torn neighboring countries. Indeed, a nighttime security guard at the fish processing plant who makes $1 an hour expresses hope for war, as he could make more money as a soldier than at any other available job. None of this seems to penetrate the psyche of visiting European Union officials, shown at a conference proclaiming the perch business a great capitalistic success.

The film contains no narration and a minimum of explanation, often leaving the viewer to piece together and interpret the information onscreen themselves. The director could be fairly criticized for sacrificing coherence for an abundance of onscreen human tragedy, but fans of powerful, unique documentaries will likely find the film fascinating nonetheless.

While scenes of Tanzanian children beating each other up for handfuls of rice and melting down fish boxes in order to sniff the binding glue in the packaging are indeed horrific, I dare say they pale in comparison to the trauma I endured while first attempting to see this film (I would advise perusing this tale no further, dear reader, unless extreme stoicism shields you from sympathy for deep human misery) . The National Archives in DC held a free screening for this film, as they did with every other nominee for Best Documentary at this year's Oscar's, back in early March. However, by the time I got there 45 minutes early, a sizable line had already formed. I stood outside in the bitter cold for over an hour, besieged not only by the weather but the friendly patter of yammering oldsters, as my hope of admittance gradually dimmed. When the cut-off point was announced to the five people remaining in front of me and we were told no one else could be seated, the grave injustice of it all bore down on me like an avalanche and seemed to extinguish the inner light of my being. Oh what a sad, sniffling sight I must have been that evening, trudging home on the Metro, ears reddened by the elements (having lacked the foresight to wear my trusty toboggan). It's too bad Darwin's Nightmare director Hubert Sauper wasn't there with his camera to capture my tale of woe that evening - assuming he'd have fortitude enough not to turn away his lens in despair.

(left: me after not getting into a free movie screening)


loveyouintheface said...

A harrowing experience like yours should be documented somehow. Maybe we could make a fictional movie called something like "Crybaby"? You could be a pariah from acceptable society and run with a crowd of redneck rockers. There would be lots of "give me that ticket" dance-offs with people in line for the movie. There could even be an attractive blonde girl in the mix that loves you and documentary films with a hot, hot heat despite warnings from her concerned yet square parents? She could even try to keep you warm in line until you sink into the icy waters telling her to LIVE LIVE LIVE...wait, what?

Chris said...

Just so long as me and my gang get to break out of jail at the end in time for the big screening of "The Fog of War."

Sarah T said...

Aha! Correct Cumberland use of the word 'toboggan'! Victory! Keep up the good work!

Chris said...

Someone caught it! Egg-cellent.