DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE directed by Hubert Sauper. 107 minutes. Subtitled. A Capri release. Opens Friday (May 20) at Canada Square. For times, see page 124. Rating: NNNN
Hubert Sauper has intelligent and compassionate eyes, a gentle voice and a dry wit. Good qualities to have if you're a documentary filmmaker. Stay under the radar. Make your subject comfortable. Find the human interest.
These traits have obviously paid off in Darwin's Nightmare, Sauper's acclaimed film exploring the connection between food and arms in Africa.
The film is set in and around Tanzania's Lake Victoria, once full of more than 210 species of fish but now the breeding ground of the foreign Nile perch, a predator that kills nearly everything in its path. The fish, which multiplies quickly, is in demand for its white fillets, especially in Europe. Cargo planes packed with perch leave the lake several times a day. And what do the planes bring in return? Weapons to be used in civil wars.
"The story isn't unusual," says Sauper on a recent trip to Toronto. "I could have made a film about bananas in Honduras, coffee and cocaine in Colombia or shoes in Indonesia."
Drawn no doubt to the metaphor of a big foreign fish devouring the natives, Sauper spent four years in the country on and off, researching and gaining his subjects' trust. They range from a prostitute who services the Russian pilots to hungry, disillusioned kids who get high on the glue from cast-off fish boxes.
Sauper, clearly an artist, shows and doesn't tell. One of the film's subtlest, most ironic moments comes when an impoverished family is watching a religious parable about the loaves and fishes.
"I could have made this film in half a year by taking a few random pictures, adding a voice-over and explaining things," says Sauper, who gives us some information in titles, not voice-over. "But that wouldn't reach you directly. A voice-over takes responsibility for your thoughts, even if what you're seeing doesn't relate to what you're hearing."
Sauper casts his documentaries the same way fiction films are cast: by choosing people he wants to spend time with. Take one of the key figures, Rafael, an elderly gatekeeper who doesn't know what's going on inside the warehouse he's protecting.
"There are hundreds of gatekeepers from dozens of fish factories," says Sauper. "But as in life, you have to ask yourself, 'Do I want to be with this person?' A lot of filmmakers are making careers out of not liking people and filming them and having you not like them, too."
He pauses for effect. Obviously, we're both thinking of Michael Moore.
"It's good that he's out there, but that's not my kind of filmmaking. I hated Bush before. I didn't need anyone to tell me not to like him."
DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE (Hubert Sauper) Rating: NNNN
Darwin’s Nightmare takes us into one of globalization’s worst heart-of-darkness situations. Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, once an ecological paradise, is now the breeding ground of the predatory Nile perch, which is shipped off to Europe in return for arms used in African civil wars. The impoverished natives, even if they land a job in a fish factory, can’t afford to eat the fish – they fight over carcasses – and the women often become prostitutes for the pilots. Director Sauper relates this story not with hand-wringing but with an artist’s compassionate eye. He waits patiently for people at all levels of the food chain to voice the truths they already knew but couldn’t admit. A disturbing, eye-opening film.