Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 01, 2007 12:33 pm 
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Garçon stupide?

It takes place in Tanzania on the edge of Lake Victoria and there are prostitutes getting killed by their johns and fat repulsive Russian and Ukrainian mercenary pilots supposedly flying in with arms and out with tons of fish, and poor boys on the street sniffing glue and the huge lake stuffed with giant ugly fish that are killing everything else, and people all around the lake starving or dying of AIDS or both, while the fish is shipped out to Europe to the great profit of somebody, not the locals, or certainly not the local poor. This stunning and depressing revelation of a very specific example of the perils and evils of globalization won a lot of prizes, especially in France, last year and the year before, and has just been shown at Film Forum in New York as part of a "non-fiction films" series chosen by none other than Werner Herzog.

Is it any surprise this film is controversial? Notably a professor at the University of Paris 1, Francois Garçon, attacked Darwin's Nightmare early on, stating certain important objections. The president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, doesn't like it either. Between them they claim:

--that the bulk of the giant fish (Nile perch) that are fileted and exported to Europe from Lake Victoria is consumed locally, not the reverse.

--that there's no proof of anyone purchasing arms in the area, and the film provides no concrete evidence that arms shipments come in on the cargo planes that take out the fish.

--that the city of Mwanza, where much of the film is shot, is made to appear like a poor shanty town in the film but is in fact the second largest city in Tanzania (after Dar el Salaam).

--that a lot of the people interviewed, including the pilots, the prostitutes, and the blue-sniffing street boys, are intoxicated.

--that the filmmaker looks only at the bad things, the poor, the starving, the sick, the morally dubious or those he implies are so (the Russian and Ukrainian pilots).

Hubert Sauper's documentary hit theaters in March 2005 to rave reviews in France (AlloCiné press rating 4.5), and got the César for Best First Film in 2006 and Best Documentary at the European Film Awards. It was a nominee for Best Documentary at the Oscars in 2006; received the FIPRESCI Prize in Sidney and top festival awards in Mexico City, Vienna, Venice – and that is not the end of its festival exposure and acclaim.

Darwin's Nightmare is a kind of "shock cinema," using a whole range of disturbing images – rotting carcasses of giant fish (you may not want to see a fish head again for a while), legless boys, a woman with a missing eye, a starving woman with AIDS. The filmmaker does not add overt commentary but his positions are clear enough: Africa is getting exploited. Food is taken out, arms come in, all to the benefit of Western Europe; the "Darwinian nightmare" of the non-native fish destroying the life of a great lake is not being addressed. Instead there is only the heedless economic exploitation of a market production advantage.

Kirwete is interested in large-scale economic development for Tanzania. But in looking at the food industry is he seeing the larger picture? Reportedly, Garçon's CV reveals past connections with Havas, an agency responsible for advertising Carrefour and Mcdonald's, the two biggest European importers of Nile perch.

Certain facts seem not to have been refuted by opponents of the film. The Nile perch, introduced in the 1960's, has wiped out almost all other fauna in Lake Victoria (though through over-harvesting, some species are coming back). Whether the large cargo planes come in empty or with cargo, there is no information that they are bringing benefits to the locals. The Russian and Ukrainian mercenary pilots have flown arm shipments in the past, by their own admission.

If Sauper's interviewees are drunken and/or impoverished (and some of them are perfectly clear-headed), a likely reason for the lack of government officials or local government-approved "experts" giving opinions on the situation may very well be that Sauper's project was not looked upon with favor by Tanzanian authorities, whose main concern is the high profitability of the perch harvesting, and he was forced to operate in secret. The disease, the starvation, the life on one euro a day, that the film documents lakeside may not represent the majority life of Mwanza City but they all exist there.

On the other hand, though the Indian-origin fish factory manager filmed says that hard times are coming, Sauper does not deny that the Nile perch filet business has been lively and profitable for Tanzania. Government objections to negative views of the fish situation are shown.

However, Sauper, who is of Austrian origin, has not claimed to be objective. He responded after Garçon's attack by saying that he is "not a journalist but a filmmaker." In Le Monde he was quoted as saying, "I did not go out to show Africa as it is, but as I see it. All the films of the world are like that. Not a film in the world can say that it is objective; that's the nature of the medium." The charge that Sauper's approach is "miserablist" is justifiable. But his sense that Africa is exploited by the rich nations of the world is shared by Abderrahmane Sissako, whose recent Bamako is an indictment of the IMF and World Bank that simply considers on a much larger scale what Sauper gives a particular example of. (Sauper has also said that Africa is not alone in being exploited thus, that he could have made his film on other continents.) Certainly Sauper's methods and the implications of Darwin's Nightmare should not be taken without question. Garçon's challenge has spearheaded a controversy and debate that can only be valuable for the film and for its subject matter. Garçon has done more to arouse enthusiastic defense than to discourage interest in the film. On the other hand, Sauper woud not have hurt his film if he had provided a scientific voice or two: ecological and biological experts are not lacking who would confirm the damage done by the Nile perch to the eco-system and to the traditional livelihoods of lakeside inhabitants.

Note: Garçon's book is repeatedly cited in English online as The Other Side of Darwin's Nightmare, but its French title is Enquête sur Le Cauchemar de Darwin ("An Investigation of Darwin's Nightmare") and there is no indication of an English version pending.

A BBC story on the Nile perch situation from 2005.

The Allociné forum on the film has some of the original press material that has been archived.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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