A quick confession before attempting to talk about a recent movie-going experience; I am continually finding myself held in the thrall of the rise of modernism and the 19th Century. Whenever I find a book detailing the historical conditions that moved the world from the start of the American Civil war through the rise of modernism (which I believe reached its apotheosis with the publishing of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922), I get swept away. There is The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand (which I am now re-reading), Erik Larson’s ghoulish The Devil In The White City, Sarah Vowell’s wonderful Assassination Vacation (which I just finished), Chris Ware’s astounding Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth and Ben Katchor’s exceptional The Jew of New York; all of these books detail a time in history when ideas had the power to change the world. There is something very familiar about this time; our country was coming to terms with a devastating war, it was expanding its empire through pre-emptive attacks on sovereign nations. But there was also so much social change by way of the power of ideas; political activism changed the nature of capitalism and art began to embrace and describe the potency of the human subjective experience. There was a gravity to life, it seems. The world of the pre-Modern and Modern era feels so vibrant, so filled with potential. By comparison, our own time feels so dumbed-down, so out of tune with its own sense of an individual’s power. Subjectivity, once the great discovery of modernism, has become a dirty word associated with a lack of ‘fundamental principles and values.’ I take comfort in seeing the similarities with an earlier age, when individuals and ideas harbored so much possibility.
Of course, not all historical connections are quite so rosy. I couldn’t help but imagine another set of historical circumstances this weekend when I took a sunny walk to BAM for the Best of The Village Voice series and a screening of the film that has changed my year; Hubert Sauper’s absolutely devastating Darwin’s Nightmare. Initially, my 19th century interests grabbed me when I saw this film in last year’s Toronto Film Festival catalogue, but a scheduling conflict kept me out of the screening there. I remember reading the catalogue description of the film, detailing the film’s examination of the impact on Lake Victoria when man introduces a predatory species of fish into the lake’s eco-system. In the subsequent months, with all of the hubbub surrounding the rise of the religious right as a social class in America and the ‘debate’ raging over creationism and ‘Intelligent Design’ these days, it took just about all the self-control I had in me not to sprint to the theater on Saturday and throw myself in front of the screen. What can I say? You had me at “Darwin”.
What I did not expect was the film’s focus on a more powerful and brutal form of 19th and 20th century history; the survival of the colonial structure of global economics. There are not very many films that defy description, that make writing words seem superfluous and genteel in the face of their images, but Darwin’s Nightmare renders all attempts at description impotent. This is what cinema was made to do; to present images so profound, experiences so full that any other medium seems useless. I can simply outline the story and my feelings about it, but in the face of what Sauper has captured on film, advocacy hardly seems enough.
Darwin’s Nightmare details the impact of the Nile Perch on the nation of Tanzania, a nation that depends on the predatory fish as a major export to Europe. As the country faces the some of the worst poverty and famine imaginable, plane after plane whisks ton after ton of fresh perch away from the mouths of the locals (who fish for and process the perch) and onto dinner tables across Europe. As mentioned before, the film does show the impact that this non-indigenous species is having on Lake Victoria; the predatory perch has eaten all other fish in the lake and thrown the eco-system wildly out of balance. The impact of the predator is paralleled by the predatory economics of profiteering; like the former denizens of the lake, the people of Tanzania are being systematically preyed upon by a corrupt economic and political system that sees the profit of export, which ends up in the hands of foreign businessmen, as being a priority over the horrific suffering of the people.
Of course, if the film were simply a lesson in the impact of free trade on a nation with incredibly limited resources, it might serve a solely didactic purpose. Instead, Sauper fills the screen with images and faces of the individual lives that are shaped by the give and take (or take and take) of the situation; the local fishermen who live by the lake in villages ravaged by prostitution and HIV, the street children who spend their nights huffing glue so they can pass out without fear of being assaulted, the Russian pilots who fly the fish out of the country (and, we learn, fly something far more horrible into Tanzania), the villagers of the countryside who scavenge for the rotten remains of post-processed fish to feed their families, the prostitutes who serve the pilots, and on and on and on. Sauper never once flinches, capturing the full measure of the impact of these conditions as they register on the faces and in the lives of his subjects.
Of course, the plundering of Africa’s resources for foreign gain is nothing new. I find solace and parallels in the stories of pre-Modern America, but there is no solace to be found in the extension of colonialism, now hiding under the guise of economic ‘development’, into the 21st century. Sauper’s film is an essential document, proof that the world hasn’t changed very much at all. History is instructive in so much as it shows us who we are by showing us how we got here and what remains of the journey. In the case of Darwin’s Nightmare, it can also show us that what once was continues on and on, beyond justification, into the realm of outrage.