A ‘little scientific experiment’ gone horribly wrong

| February 01, 2006
While the world watches: a still from Darwins Nightmare.
While the world watches: a still from Darwins Nightmare.
- Celluloid Dreams

In the early 1960s, Nile perch were introduced into Lake Victoria in an effort to restock depleted waters, a lucrative move that brought fishing jobs to Tanzania and lined the pockets of enterprising exporters satiating European hunger for the one of the biggest freshwater fish around.

What probably seemed like a good idea at the time has evolved, for lack of a better word, into both an ecological and humanitarian disaster. Hubert Sauper's Oscar-nominated documentary Darwin's Nightmare explores how one unbelievably shortsighted action has turned the largest tropical lake on earth into a massive hellhole that deteriorates further while the world watches.

The widespread famine surrounding Lake Victoria is a grim irony since the waters give up tons of protein every day in the Nile perch, arguably Tanzania's cash crop. But this cannibalistic predator is ruining the lake's ecosystem, as well as the lives of those dependent on its unnatural existence. Sauper illustrates this frustrating chain reaction through interviews with the poverty-stricken fishermen harvesting the waters, the often HIV-infected prostitutes who service the fishermen (condom use is a sin), and the little glue-huffing orphans who will most likely grow up to become fishermen if there are any perch left by that time. And if the kids live that long.

Sauper also speaks to the more opportunistic predators benefiting from this ongoing crisis, such as the higher-ups at the fish-processing facility (one seems especially enamored of his singing Billy Bass) trying to remain blind to the surrounding desolation, as well as the pilots who transport the fish out of Tanzania. These men of predominantly Russian and Ukrainian descent are an interesting if mercenary lot, and Sauper keeps returning to the question of their cargo planes: what do the pilots bring with them when they arrive in Tanzania to transport the fish? The pilots give vague answers, from "nothing" to "equipment," but it's obvious that they're not loaded down with much-needed humanitarian aid, and the general consensus is the planes are delivering arms to facilitate the many wars ravaging Africa. But not all of the pilots are able to feign detached ignorance for the camera.

And the images, though artfully composed for a verité piece of filmmaking, are heartbreaking: leftover fish carcasses rotting in the sun, maggots wiggling on a woman's muddy toes, starving kids pummeling one another for a couple of clumps of rice, once-gorgeous Tanzanians in the final stages of AIDS.

But Sauper doesn't offer any solutions, and that's not his job. Darwin's Nightmare brings necessary attention to an issue that actually reaches beyond the shores of Lake Victoria. It's called survival of the fittest, a notion that would be far more palatable if the fittest were also the smartest.

A handful of thoughts on the Academy Award nominations, the reason my cereal gets soggy every winter on a Tuesday morning:

What was originally thought to be a two-horse race (Walk the Line vs. Brokeback Mountain) just got slightly more interesting with the non-acting nominations for Capote as well as the eleventh-hour push for Spielberg's Munich.

Amy Adams' much-deserved nod for the underseenJunebug was the most pleasant surprise of the nominations. Maybe the Academy loves meerkats as well.

I would have liked to see Ralph Fiennes get some love from Oscar for The Constant Gardener, but I am happy that fifth slot went to surprise nominee Terrence Howard for Hustle and Flow instead of perennial fallback Russell Crowe for CinderellaMan.

KeiraKnightley was not the one who should have been noticed for Pride and Prejudice. Donald Sutherland's lovely and subtle performance as the kindly Mr. Bennet cannot be praised enough.

For the first time in a while all of the Best Picture nominees are directed by all of the Best Director nominees. I was hoping the odd slot might go to Fernando Meirelles for his astounding work on The Constant Gardener.

Finally, an Oscar nomination for Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man).

Is an Academy Award nod for acclaimed thespian Matt Dillon a sure sign of the apocalypse or just a gentle reminder from the universe that I really should get out from under that rock I call home and see Crash?

Jon Stewart (yay!) hosts the Academy Awards on Sunday, March 5, at 8 p.m.

Darwin's Nightmare (NR), directed by Hubert Sauper, is showing at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre on Saturday, February 4, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, February 5, at 7 p.m.

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