Among the Oscar-nominated five documentaries, if the adorable birds of March of the Penguins met the voracious Nile perch of Darwin's Nightmare (which runs Friday, Feb. 24–Thursday, March 2, at Northwest Film Forum), they'd be devoured—feathers, Morgan Freeman, and all. That's what this invasive, non-native fish has done in Lake Victoria since its introduction by unknown hands in the 1960s. (Tanzania emerged from British colonial control in 1961 into dysfunctional nationhood, although Nightmare provides no such context or clues as to its modern misrule.) From the slaughter of native lake species was a new industry born: Nile perch fillets, exported by the ton to the polite white tablecloths of Europe. Tanzanians, no surprise, are left with the guts and heads—and the country of 36 million still can't feed itself. (Two million are suffering famine, the radio reports here.) Out fly the fish, in flies foreign aid. Africa has always been a land of resources to extract, during the colonial era and since, and nothing about Nightmare is news to anyone who reads the international section of the newspaper.
And yet because so few people do read the newspapers, and despite all its narrative flaws, here is a documentary that lives up to its name: horrifying, relentless, and grounded in the inexorable logic of capitalism. A nightmare. Austrian-born and French-based, director Hubert Sauper has done a fantastic job of reporting—often while posing as a tourist to gain access to sensitive areas—and his video footage can be breathtaking, worthy of comparison to the photographs of Sebastião Salgado. Natives in the city of Mwanza (on the northwest shore of the vast lake, second largest in the world) stew the perch entrails in steaming cauldrons that emit blinding ammonia fumes. Huge Russian Ilyushin cargo planes scream in for landings over the fishermen in their small leaky boats. Village women sing in exquisite harmony by the grave of an AIDS victim (the disease is rampant here, as in the rest of verdant central Africa). The perch themselves glisten in the fillet factory like enormous silver pigs. Simply by recording these images, Sauper has earned the right— I hope—to wag his finger and lecture the assembled stars come March 5. His Nightmare is like the documentary version of The Constant Gardener: the worst we can imagine about the West pillaging poor Africa, and all of it true.
As a filmmaker, however, I'm not sure Sauper is any more ethical than the Russian-Ukrainian crew members of the IL-76s he befriends. He adopts a Michael Moore stance here, pretending he doesn't know what these cargo jets transport in to Tanzania before flying our dinners out, and he structures the whole film around his supposed pursuit of the truth, which we can guess in an instant. Let's see: Africa is rich in fish, diamonds, timber, and oil; the continent has been riven by war since the colonial era ended; and all the armies and militias and rebels and genocide practitioners in the mostly corrupt nations that haven't already splintered into anarchy need exactly what to continue this death spiral of carnage? (What he needs to do, of course, is follow the fillets back to Europe, not the munitions flowing in the other direction. And why isn't journalist Richard Mgamba, on whose 2002 exposé Sauper depends, allowed to speak further?)
Apart from a few heavy-handed title cards, Sauper provides no narrator or overview to his project. We hear his voice—and rather leading questions—off camera, but he honorably allows the players to speak for themselves: the fat, drunk Slavic flight crews and their smiling, sympathetic Tanzanian whores; the glue-sniffing street urchins (funny how the camera is always drawn to the one-legged cripples); and the ordinary decent citizens, most who speak wistfully in broken English (with subtitles), about the importance of education and jobs. "There's a scramble for the natural resources of the world," says one guy. He should know: He's a former schoolteacher turned fisherman. The money's in fillets, not essays.
I have profound reservations about Sauper and Nightmare, because he commits the sin of essentialism— defining Tanzania, and by extension all of Africa, solely by its chaos and brutality. He excludes almost any fact, apart from vague indictments of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, that might lift his film off the ground. And yet his film covers that ground with outraged tenacity. His limitations of technique and perspective make me angry. His documentary is a work of art, however, because it is so infuriating.