Two New Docs at the Northwest Film Forum
(Hubert Sauper, Austria/Belgium/France, 2004, BetaSP, 107min)
The most visceral film-going experience I've had so far this year, Oscar-nominated documentary Darwin's Nightmare couldn't be more aptly titled. It begins with a harried control tower employee swatting at wasps and ends with a pleasant-faced local watching planes depart from the same outer-Mwanza airport. The ex-Soviet aircraft, which is bound for Europe, is filled with Nile perch. The fish, which is not native to Tanzania, has been providing jobs for the indigenous population, along with Russians, Ukrainians, and others for forty decades now. So what's so nightmarish about that? And what does any of this have to do with Charles Darwin?
Well, no one seems to know who introduced the perch to Lake Victoria, but the predator has decimated the other fish in the area and, although flourishing at the moment, the voracious creature is a cannibal that seems likely to decimate its own species at some point. It gets worse. First of all, the processed perch is too expensive for the average Tanzanian--who earns a dollar a day--to purchase, and yet the country is in the midst of widespread famine. Consequently, citizens either do without or feast on the remnants (the heads and stripped carcasses).
Then there's the processing of the remnants, which provides additional jobs, but only under the most atrocious conditions. The carcasses are crawling with maggots and the ammonia used in the processing makes the workers sick. Again--it gets worse. Medical care in this northern region is subpar to non-existent. Several (surprisingly well spoken) subjects are missing limbs and many have AIDS. The women who aren't involved in processing work as prostitutes--a profession that proves to be even more hazardous for one poor unfortunate--and their primary clientele appears to be the foreign pilots. The children, who are left unattended, smoke, sniff homemade glue, and fight over the few scraps of food available.
But wait--it gets even worse. Turns out those Russian planes are also exporting goods into Tanzania. I won't say what, but they're the last thing this country needs. Darwin's Nightmare has been described as "agitprop" by some observers. They have a point. Austrian writer/director Hubert Sauper aims to get your blood boiling, but unlike Michael Moore, his images tell more of the story than his words (there's no narration and minimal music). His tale is a powerful one, but it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by all this misery, especially since the film offers no remedy, nor even a glimmer of hope. Then again, maybe that's the point: In Tanzania, the fittest have been allowed to survive for so long that there is no solution.
Darwin's Nightmare plays Feb. 24 -- Mar. 2, Fri. -- Thurs. at 7 and 9 pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave, between Pike and Pine. For more information: www.nwfilmforum.org. General info: 206-329-2629. Showtimes: 206-267-5380.