Taken literally, its title might be the least useful thing about the new documentary Darwin's Nightmare. The author of The Origin of Species likely never conceived of anything like this: the ecological destruction of Africa's Lake Victoria through the introduction of the Nile perch. Intended to anchor a fishing industry, the voracious breed has squeezed out most other aquatic life.
But the film's title is alarmingly apt in the way it plays off the most common perversion of Darwin's theory of natural selection: how that theory is wielded to explain "survival of the fittest" among the human beings drawn up by the nets of Globalized Capital.
The large and toothy fish, in other words, is just a starting point for filmmaker Hubert Sauper. The veteran Austrian-born documentarian hauled his camera to Lake Victoria's Tanzanian shore, ostensibly to see how the perch, first imported decades ago, has made an environmental mess. But it quickly becomes clear that Sauper is after nothing less than a geographically specific big-picture take on the depredations of the new world economy.
Sauper captures the disorientingly beautiful sight of fishing boats quiet on the beach at dawn, as well as the rough nighttime street life of the fishing villages. It's a one-industry economy, addicted to the agent of its own demise and revolving around the catch, the processing plants and the Russian cargo planes that jet in from the north and haul filets to European platters. Plant security guards make $1 a night, prostitutes servicing foreign nationals make $10, and homeless kids huff fumes in a place where even children with parents -- employed parents -- are hungry enough to fight over gruel.
Saupert's muckraking of this all-but-lawless world is brainy enough to take us to an ecology conference -- and gritty enough to following the industrially butchered fish carcasses to their dumping grounds outside desperately poor villages, where barefoot residents scavenge the maggot-ridden remains. Saupert is also sufficiently intrepid to investigate the scuttlebutt that dodgy cargo pilots are running black-market weapons.
One brand of fish is named "Victorian Bounty." That would be ironic enough even if it didn't remind us of the colonial legacy that foreshadowed this misery. But Saupert's film is no screed. Impassioned and committed, yes, but he's got the dirt. Like Stephanie Black's incisive, maddening 2001 global-trade exposé Life And Debt, Darwin's Nightmare serves a naked lunch of exploited Third Worlders who can't afford to feed themselves. Now, to paraphrase William S. Burroughs, we members of the full-plate club can see what's on the end of every fork. In English, Russian and Swahili, with subtitles.