Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper (2004)
Darwin’s Nightmare is a Austrian-Belgian-French documentary which evoked controversy all over the world - but especially in France - for it’s subjective documentary style. It focuses on fishing in Victoria Lake (Tanzania) and it’s negative effects on the local population. It also demonstrates a link between the export of fish to Europe and the import of weapons to Africa. The film won prizes in various film festivals and was nominated for an Oscar.
In the 1960s 35 Nile perches were introduced to the Victoria Lake where they wiped out most of the population of domestic fishes (more than 400 species) and affected the ecosystem of the lake. In the past decades, the Nile perch became a real export hit and all along the coast of the lake factories for fish processing emerged, supported by the European Union (EU). Today the EU is the main market for the Nile perches … or rather was, until the release of Darwin’s Nightmare!
The film suggests that the local population doesn’t benefit from this export gain. Quite on the contrary, a lot of people starve and it feels strange to see that the fish is exported to Europe instead of being sold where needed. Sauper contrasts this with images of a famine in Tanzania with images of sacks of crops sent by western countries. He also shows very cruel images of the re-use of fish rests: a woman is standing in waste and maggots are crawling about her feet while she is hanging up fishes to dry. The film suggests that the stockfish - which is made out of the dried fish rests - is eaten by humans later. This is only one aspect of the film, which was later contested by European newspapers and experts.
The Debate in France
In November 2005 the French historian François Garçon accused Sauper of having manipulated the spectators by distorting facts (in the French revue Les Temps Modernes; Nr. 635). Another newspaper, Le Monde, was interested in the debate and sent a reporter to the region of the Victoria Lake: he discovered that the fish carcasses are only used for feeding animals and that the fishing sector brings a lot of (informal) jobs to the region. However, the journalist confirms the arms trade by quoting an expert: for more than ten years now, there has been an exchange of fish and weapons. Another French journalist (of the television and cultural magazine Télérama) joined the debate by reclaiming that the film can be considered as art because an artist is allowed to stage the reality for cinematic purposes.
This shows that the debate is not only questioning the asserted facts but is also about the way Sauper is presenting certain images which are almost unbearable to watch. Is this a kind of art and is it really necessary to see?
In Sauper’s point of view it is a very personal film and he doesn’t consider himself an investigative journalist. However he estimates his film as a possible bridge between knowledge and political awareness. In his opinion, a film cannot display reality; it is only the concentration of a certain reality. Sauper said in a interview with arte.tv that he is not interested in the fish but in the inequity of globalisation. According to his statement, the fish could also have been gold in Burundi, diamonds in Congo or oil in Nigeria.
At first you think that Darwin’s Nightmare is mostly a film about humans, conditions of living and about globalisation – and not primarily about fish and food. But in fact, these categories are very linked today. Even if some consumers have changed their attitudes because of this film, there are still plenty of other non-discovered affairs. Documentaries like this can contribute to make consumers more conscious to food and it’s production ways.