Something horrible lives in the waters of Tanzania's Lake Victoria.
Some time ago, large, cannibalistic Nile perch were introduced into the lake. They quickly devoured every living competitor, grew to monstrous sizes and became the dominant force in this, the largest freshwater lake in Africa.
The Nile perch is the currency in Darwin's Nightmare, the catch that the African fisherman seek, that the factory workers filet, that the Russian pilots fly to Europe for 2 million Europeans to devour every day.
But the omnivorous perch does service as metaphor, too.
Much as the fish destroyed the native ecosystem and obliterated everything smaller and weaker in its path, the Europeans who support Tanzania's fishing industry have decimated its people. Darwinian survival of the fittest has found a cruel outcome in the village of Mwanza, where the lives of Africans are cheap compared to the supremacy of the perch.
Fishing and its ancillary occupations are the only endeavors in bleak Mwanza, where the populace is reduced to carrion, feeding off the remains of the native industry.
The eviscerated Nile perch skeletons discarded by the factory are carried in truck beds to the poor local neighborhoods. A local woman, pleased that she has a job, picks the rotting carcasses off the ground teeming with maggots and hangs them in the sun to dry. In imagery culled from the depth of Hades, the dead eyes of row upon row of perch protrude from large vats of boiling water. The fish heads are dried and smoked to be eaten by the starving locals who have sent the choicest, most life-sustaining pieces of the beasts, gingerly packed in plastic, to markets in Europe.
Other people feed off the industry, too. Prostitutes travel to the lake's edge to service the fishermen and foreign pilots, who seem to relish their power over the women. The women also are used by the fishermen, and AIDS is a frequent consequence of these unions, along with a surplus of feral children who roam Mwanza's streets. The children's principal recreation is boiling down the plastic containers used to pack the perch for market into a chemical broth that they sniff to forget their troubles. In the sickening spiral of dread that defines Darwin's Nightmare, the instantaneous sleep that follows inhalation of the chemicals makes the children vulnerable to rape.
In his Academy Award-nominated documentary, director Hubert Sauper interviews a number of Africans who are profoundly aware of the grotesque injustice that defines their lives but are helpless to stop it. A night security guard, Raphael, paid one dollar a day to guard a fish research institute (a salary that undoubtedly places him in the village's middle class), is given poison arrows to stop intruders. The last guard was hacked to death. Though well into adulthood and with at least one child to support, he dreams, like a doomed prostitute named Eliza, of getting an education.
Darwin's Nightmare is a vision of hell on earth, a hell created by the First World's desire for a product and its oblivious support of the grotesque Third World misery that produces its comforts and luxuries. With his unblinking videotaped access to the streets of Mwanza and a debriefing on its ways by locals, the Austrian Sauper has created a kind of surreal tourist's snapshot. Sauper shoots with an unblinking eye, surveying the landscape with a comprehensive, prospecting view. Interspersed with his interviews and visions of a coven of street children fighting over a pot of rice are the inter-titles that contextualize his postcard of horror, tying up the brutal threads.
And when you find out what the Russian pilots are flying into Tanzania in their cargo holds, the sense of doom becomes nearly unbearable.