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Film Review: Darwin's Nightmare: An impactful documentary shows the dark side of globalization 

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

by Alberto Sclaverano for Citiplat

Darwin's Nightmare (2004) is one of the most impressive documentary films of the early 2000s. First presented at the Venice Film Festival in 2004, the film has received much recognition, including an Academy Award nomination for best documentary in 2006. Filmed on a low budget and with independent means by Austrian documentary filmmaker Hubert Sauper, Darwin's Nightmare is structured almost like a journalistic service. The author approaches the source material like an investigative reporter and omits various aspects common in mainstream documentaries. There is no voice-over commentary, and the film's thesis emerges from its images and the actual interviews with people. While the message is clear, there is also room for the audience to reflect on the events portrayed.

Darwin's Nightmare describes the ecological catastrophe in Lake Victoria starting in the 1950s. Lake Victoria is the greatest of African lakes, located between Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. Lake Victoria once had incredible biodiversity, with more than 500 different types of fish living inside its water. But everything changed when British colonial authorities and local powers decided to introduce the Nile perch. This big predator fish was more commercially valuable for the fishing industry. The consequences were, and remain, catastrophic. The Nile perch, now considered among the most invasive species on Earth, caused the extinction of many fish in the lake, destroying one of the most diverse lake ecosystems in the world.

Nile perch started to survive through cannibalism when most of the smaller fish they used to pray went extinct. The seafood industry benefited from this and was more profitable. But, as Sauper shows in his film, the lives of poor people around the lake worsened. In the shadow of the Nile perch fishing and preparation industry, a parallel economic system made upon the exploitation of local people quickly developed. The documentary also discusses the flow of weapons from European arms dealers into Africa to fuel conflict.

While most of the fish meat is exported to wealthier nations, the local community is left to survive on the carcasses of the Nile perch. The factories that prepare perch's filets employ locals under terrible working conditions, and drug addiction, alcoholism, and prostitution have become common among the people who live around the lake. HIV/AIDS spread uncontrolled, causing several deaths. Almost none of the profits created by the Nile perch industry helped the local community, and instead, only enriched foreign multinationals and corrupted African business people.

As the titles suggest, this is a Darwinian nightmare that originated from a man-made natural disaster that annihilated an entire ecosystem in the name of economic profit. But the film's focus soon shifts to a broader description of the dark side of globalization. Too often, the current development model means cynical exploitation of the poorest areas to the advantage of the richest. Darwin's Nightmare suggests that the ecological crisis and the economic model are inextricably connected. Natural resources are getting increasingly scarce: to avoid repeating catastrophes such as the one that occurred at Lake Victoria, we need to change, or at least adjust, our model of development. Darwin's Nightmare wants us to be outraged; sometimes, this is the best way to push people to act.


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