BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: eco-ploitation.

TANZANIA’s Lake Victoria is a stunning expanse of water and is the world’s largest tropical lake and Africa’s largest lake. It is also near to where humans first populated the world, lying in the Great Rift Valley between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Darwin’s Nightmare uses this ecological significance as a platform to explore how this place where humankind developed is still nasty, brutish and short. The lake, and specifically a Tanzanian city on the lake-front, Mwanza, becomes a microcosm to show the brutal toll wrecked by neo-colonialism, globalisation and human greed. This is a scathing and pointed documentary, indicting the West’s casual destruction of poorer nations in their quest for more and more resources. Sauper wrings some heart-breaking imagery (not without their own agenda), but the film’s overall ambition make this one of the more devastating pieces of filmmaking of recent years.

A few decades ago, someone introduced the Nile Perch into the Lake, as an experiment to see if this will help in terms of fisheries. (Ironically, the Lake is also the source for the Nile River). What ensued was that the fish took over, destroying the fragile eco-system. Many of the local fish species went extinct, but a roaring trade took off in terms of voracious Nile Perch. While this may have had some economic benefits (even critics of the process would struggle to deny this), the documentary shows there have been considerable down-stream socio-economic and environmental consequences. Exploitation by the West (specifically the EU, Russia), the ravages of HIV/AIDS, the unequal distribution of food (the cruel irony of famine existing in a country where so much of its primary produce is flown off to the West), the coldness of factory owners, World Bank officials and politicians, the vicious cycle of poverty, the ‘swapping’ of arms to send off to Angola and Congo for fish by European nations – all of this makes for a rather depressing night’s viewing.

Darwin’s Nightmare features interviews with a whole lot of people along the chain. Russian pilots, prostitutes, menial workers, street-kids, pastors, AIDS victims, factory owners all get their chance to explain how the developments in Mwanza have affected them. The documentary has been accused of unethical treatment of its subjects, and exploiting the ‘bad’ and ignoring some of the positive benefits. For example, the use of non-linear inserts has the potential for manipulation, and it’s clear that Sauper has a particular point of view. But for the most part, Sauper lets the images do their own talking. If watching someone die of AIDS is considered manipulative, then it’s no wonder the world hasn’t given that much of a shit that millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa have died from the virus. The film also highlights the fact that the fishes are cannibalising themselves to death – if the economic benefits are as good as they are meant to be, the consequences of the perch being over-fished will be devastating (I would hate to think what the world-wide commodity price drop has done in this regard). There isn’t a specific structure in the film either – which might limit the “point” Sauper might have been trying to make. Nevertheless, the far-reaching consequences of someone dropping a bucket-full of Nile Perch into the lake is lucidly argued. The historical context of the area is largely ignored and would have added a little bit more depth (this exploitation of “Africa” by Europe is hardly a new historical development after all), and the actual environmental damage is skirted over a bit. But that said, Darwin’s Nightmare shows that for all our celebrations of civilisation and modernity – our human existence is simply nothing more than a bunch of big fish eating the smaller ones.