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Friday, Dec. 8, 2006

Perched on the edge of disaster

The "survival of the fittest" theory applies with breathtaking, heartaching vengeance in "Darwin's Nightmare," a documentary that shows how a single fish changed and ultimately wrecked the life system in and around Lake Victoria, Tanzania. The world's second largest fresh water lake and reputedly the birthplace of mankind, Lake Victoria had once teemed with several hundred different species of fish; now that number is on the verge of dwindling to just one: the Nile perch.

Darwin's Nightmare Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
A boy chews rice as a group of Tanzanians cook Nile perch in a scene from "Darwin's Nightmare"

Director: Hubert Sauper
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: English
Opening: Dec. 23, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The Nile perch is a veritable terminator; it eats or destroys any fish it can find (including its own young), and grows to gigantic proportions. In its wake, nothing is left, and the once lush waters of Lake Victoria have become brittle and barren. On the other hand, a Nile perch processing factory has cropped up on its shore, and the local populace have become entirely dependent on it. Factory executives sit at the top of the food chain, while at the very bottom are the poor adults and street children who feed off the heads and innards of the fish once they have been cut down and spliced up as fillets and exported to the European Union (its biggest clientele) and Japan (a close second). A notch above them are the prostitutes who cater to the fishermen and the pilots (mostly Russians) who fly in and cart off up to 55 tons of fish at a time.

Directed by Austrian Hubert Sauper, "Darwin's Nightmare" exposes the workings of an incredible, unstoppable generator of poverty and tragedy, seeded half a century ago when a British researcher introduced the Nile perch to Lake Victoria as an experiment. Apparently it was with good intentions; the perch matured and multiplied much more rapidly than any other fish in the lake and therefore was likely to contribute to the local fisheries industry. What eventually ensued was a never-ending spiral; as long as the Nile perch was around (and they're unlikely to die off any time soon), the state of affairs will remain the same.

While Sauper doesn't point a righteous finger at a specific target, he's extremely alert to the bitter ironies and contradictions that make up the world around Lake Victoria. There is, for example, the factory owner who sits in his air-conditioned office and plays "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to keep away the rich man's blues, should he feel any. There are the beefy Russian pilots who fly the rough, rickety cargo planes that seem about to collapse in mid-air; they talk about their wives left at home while consorting with Tanzanian prostitutes younger than their daughters. There's Raphael, the night watchman at the factory who always smiles as he talks, even when he's exhibiting a set of homemade poisoned arrows used on thieves, and who professes to long for war: "Everyone wants war. As soldiers, we get paid more." Raphael earns $1 for a 12-hour night shift. For that matter, Eliza (girlfriend of many pilots) makes $10 a night and dreams of taking courses to better her English.

What Darwin couldn't foresee, and which Sauper's documentary shows in meticulous detail, is the onset of globalization. Nile perch fishing may be Lake Victoria's prime local industry but its business bypasses the locals and spreads to the furthest corners of the planet, as do the sanitized, plastic-wrapped packets of perch fillets that eventually wind up on sushi counters from Oslo to Tokyo (in this country they go by the name of shiro-suzuki). One of the most harrowing scenes shows a crippled, barefoot woman wandering among the carcasses of disemboweled perch, dumped onto a garbage site a few kilometers from the factory and then dried on makeshift racks under a blazing sun. Vultures and crows circle overhead as maggots infest the fish heads -- the woman is one of the workers who turns the heads around for better drying, her legs mired in a foot of mud and her brain wrecked from breathing the fumes (both from the fish carcasses and the ammonia used for disinfection). Her colleague is worse off: one eye has fallen out, the flesh now closed up over it; she talks about "getting an operation" with toneless resignation.

The biggest betrayal, as it were, is a suspicion that the cargo planes that leave clogged with fish come in with weapons and artillery to fuel Africa's civil wars. As Raphael stresses, war is practically the only chance men have for making a solid income.

Footage of a meeting between Tanzanian government officials and U.N. delegates show that unless the people are kept poor, miserable and violent, international monetary fund cash will stop coming through. And as the adults meet and sip their mineral water, the street kids fight and torture each other over a handful of rice and a piece of a fish's rotten head.

Darwin may have showed us how life evolves, but that knowledge is useless against the here and now of reality. The word nightmare doesn't begin to describe it, implying, as it does, an exit that comes with waking. Here, waking up means opening the door to a vast labyrinth of horror impossible to navigate.

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