East Africa: Darwin's Nightmare becomes tanzanian nightmare

The documentary, directed by Hubert Sauper, focuses on the area surrounding Lake Victoria in the African country of Tanzania. The lake has been over-run by the Nile Perch, a large fresh-water fish that was accidentally introduced 50 years ago. This has created a huge supply of fish for export to Europe, which has made a few businessmen quite wealthy and provided jobs for many of the people who live around the like. But the species has decimated the eco-system, including the smaller fish that used to provide much of the food for Tanzania's population. And because Europeans can pay much more for the Nile Perch than ordinary Tanzanians, few of the people living around the lake and in the wider countryside can afford to eat what was once a staple of their lifestyle. Economists talk about globalization bringing down the price of commodities, but the opposite is often true in the Third World.

Sauper does a nice job of giving the feel of the lake towns, interviewing everyone from the owner of the fish factory to the pilots who fly the food back to Europe to the homeless boys who eke out an existence on the street. He spends much more time with the marginalized Africans than with the ecologists and economists who are often trotted out in these kinds of movies. This helps us understand how the problem has impacted the native townsfolk, though it makes it harder for us to understand the full scale of the problem. We see the particular rather than the general. But given how often economists and politicians talk about Africa and globalization in general terms, I welcome a movie that shows us how those abstractions are impacting specific people.

Darwin's Nightmare is shot in ugly-looking digital video, but the format certainly makes it easier to get the range of interviews Sauper does. A pair of scenes that focus on a group of boys is both touching and harrowing, as is a long sequence that shows how resourceful Africans use the cast-offs from the fish factories. Sauper also spends a great deal of time shooting the apparently empty planes that fly into the local airport. At first, it seems as if he's emphasizing that Europe doesn't provide anything to Africa in return for the food. But he finally gets around to the presumption that illegal arms shipments are actually flying in. That's an even more provocative argument--that Europe takes Africa's food and offers only warfare in return--and the film would've been helped if that argument had been made earlier on. Still, this is a compelling examination on the impact of globalization and a heart-felt look at an area of the world we rarely see.

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