‘The old question, which social and political structure is best for the world seems to have been answered. Capitalism has won.”
Those are the words of documentary filmmaker Hubert Sauper.
Sauper is the director of the multiple-award-winning documentary Darwin’s Nightmare, the intimate tale of the fishing industry surrounding Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, which he masterfully translates into a flawless anecdote for globalization.
“I could make the same kind of movie in Sierra Leone, only the fish would be diamonds, in Honduras, bananas, and in Libya, Nigeria or Angola, crude oil,” says Sauper.
If Sauper’s thoughts about capitalism as the world’s winning global economic system sound defeatist, it is because he has seen evidence of capitalism’s glory throughout Africa.
“It is … incredible that wherever prime raw material is discovered, the locals die in misery, their sons become soldiers, and their daughters are turned into servants and whores.
“Hearing and seeing the same stories over and over makes me feel sick. After hundreds of years of slavery and colonization of Africa, globalization of African markets is the deadliest humiliation for the people of this continent. The arrogance of rich countries towards the Third World (that’s three quarters of humanity) is creating immeasurable future dangers for all peoples.”
Darwin’s Nightmare is located in a place said to be the birthplace of mankind, the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
In the 1960s, Nile perch was introduced as part of a scientific experiment. The voracious predator, which can grow up to 1.8 metres and 90 kilograms, has left virtually nothing else alive in Lake Victoria — a lake the size of Ireland that is Africa’s largest,. It’s the largest tropical lake in the world and the second largest freshwater lake.
Cichlids, small bony fish that feed on detritus, were essential to the lake because detritus consumes vital oxygen. The massive loss of cichlids over the past 40 years has caused some areas of the lake to become dead zones.
Lake Victoria, one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, contained 400 species of cichlids. Only 200 remain.
It is “the greatest vertebrate mass extinction in recorded history,” according to Les Kauffman, a chief scientist at Boston University.
Using a minimalist documentary style — there is no narration, everything is told through its characters — Darwin’s Nightmare illuminates with simple clarity how the export of this monocrop to Europe is connected to the decay of local society.
Fishermen who were once farmers leave their villages for long periods to fish.
Prostitutes infect them with HIV, which gets brought back to the villages. The fisherman, and sometimes their wives and children, die of AIDS.
Widows become whores. Orphans become street kids who sniff gas and melt the plastic fish containers to inhale the fumes.
A fisheries research centre pays a man a dollar a day to guard its gates — a job that got the last guard killed.
Pilots from Russia support the prostitution industry. Their massive cargo planes land empty — or sometimes filled with weapons — and leave for Europe filled with fish. The airstrip’s understaffed control tower is infested with wasps and has a broken radio. On the runway, cargo planes whip past the skeletal remains of less successful landing attempts.
The fish factory, which employs 1,000 people, sells the discarded fish carcasses locally. Selling deep-fried carcasses that were previously worm-infested provides a few more jobs and a nutritious meal for the locals.
The tale reminds me of the 1980 film, The Gods Must be Crazy, in which a pilot drops an empty Coke bottle on a subsistence village in the Kalahari desert thus introducing to the bushmen the concept of property, violence and greed for the first time.
Sauper has tried to make his tale of globalization just as simple so we can understand what seems almost impossible for most of us to grasp — how our consumer habits affect others millions of miles away.
His inspiration for Darwin’s Nightmare came by accident while researching in Rwanda for a documentary about refugees there entitled Kisangani Diary.
“In 1997, I witnessed for the first time the bizarre juxtaposition of two gigantic airplanes, both bursting with food. The first cargo jet brought 45 tonnes of yellow peas from America to feed the refugees in the nearby UN camps. The second plane took off for the European Union, weighted with 50 tonnes of fresh fish.”
It turned out the plane filled with yellow peas was also carrying arms, “so that the same refugees that were benefiting from the yellow peas could be shot at later during the nights,” writes Sauper. “In the mornings, my trembling camera saw in this stinking jungle destroyed camps and bodies.”
Sauper and his crew while on location in Tanzania filming Darwin’s Nightmare were often treated with suspicion and consequently disguised themselves as pilots and loadmasters and carried fake identities. A good chunk of the filming budget was spent bribing police and paying fines.
At the risk of making Sauper the hero of his own documentary — there were no heroes in Darwin’s Nightmare, only ordinary people, I must say I am thankful for people like him who are willing to risk their lives to tell important stories, even if they can’t solve them.
I think Sauper’s strength is that he feels as helpless in these matters as his films’ characters.
As one of the Russian pilots tells Sauper tearfully: “I want all the child(ren) of the world to be happy, but I don’t know how to do it.”
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.