I’ve seen more impressive filmmaking but few more important films, and Darwin’s Nightmare is one of the strangest and most affecting films I’ve ever seen. For starters it doesn’t have a narrative, so the viewer is tasked with connecting the dots. The film begins with a skirmish between an air traffic controller and a bee madly buzzing against the windows of a control tower somewhere in Tanzania. This image is juxtaposed against what filmmaker Hubert Sauper describes in a DVD interview as “the big metal bird that brings help and destruction at once [as] seen from one place in the middle of Africa.” The film goes on to present several realities superimposed atop one another through the mechanisms of globalism.
Ostensibly a movie about arms trafficking, most of the images are of poor fisherman at sea; orphaned street kids sniffing glue and fighting over fistfuls of rice; AIDS and famine victims suffering in silence; gleaming giant fish processed in Indian-owned fisheries to be served on European tables; fish carcasses left behind for the African locals, who can’t afford the fillets for which they’ve earned $5 per day to process; and Russian pilots strutting around with local prostitutes while they wait for the cargo holds to be filled. As Sauper quips in the interview, “What we don’t know is how much those things are interrelated and how much, for example, the ‘miracle of a new economy’ is interrelated with a nearby war.” He goes on to say that his intention was “to make a film about the logic of our time. And it’s a very weird logic.”
Nobody predicted the consequences of introducing Lake Perch into the body of water that was once the blue gem of Africa. By 2050 Lake Victoria will probably be totally dead with a profound, complex and tragic impact on the communities along the seacoast. Sauper notes that he could just as easily have made a film about bananas in Honduras, diamonds in Sierre Leone, or oil in the Niger Delta or Angola. Nightmares end. Will this?
Now to the flaws: Sauper decided against any narration because, as he explains in an interview included on the DVD, he wanted to “force you [the viewer] to start asking yourself questions.” While this is admirable, I don’t think the average viewer will necessarily be inclined to do so – at least not to a degree that goes beyond grasping the big picture. Even those who would go the extra mile get the short shrift because the film suffers from a dearth of subtitles, and I doubt most viewers from regions other than those in which the film was made will be able to discern the accents of many of the film’s protagonists.
Second, Sauper’s desire betrays a belief that his viewers will have enough base knowledge to be able to decipher the goings-on. So, for example, in a key scene when the painter is talking about “Mr. Mkapa’s” response to finding arms in a UN plane with weapons for Angola, few Westerners know that Benjamin Mkapa was the President of Tanzania. Without subtitles, they probably won’t even pick up on the name or have any clue of the spelling. Many will not know where or what Angola is, let alone the fact that for years, the lengthy civil war there gave the country the distinction of having the most internally displaced persons in the world. As for the fact that this was a UN plane, I don’t think most of us are well enough versed to suss out the implications. Maybe I’m wrong and those who would be interested in a film like this have a leg up on the general public, in having the desire to dig up the back story on their own. I applaud a filmmaker who doesn’t automatically “dumb down” the presentation. But I do believe subtitles and a bit of exposition would make this film more accessible. It’s a shame because the movie should have as wide an audience as possible. I don’t want to discourage anyone from renting this movie, but be aware that it might challenge you in more ways than simply being able to stomach some of the graphic images. Please see it anyway. It’s the most proper use of the film medium in a long time.