Darwin's Nightmare

Darwin's Nightmare is a 2004 French-Belgian-Austrian documentary film written and directed by Hubert Sauper, dealing with the environmental and social effects of the fishing industry around Lake Victoria in Tanzania. It premiered at the 2004 Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for the 2006 Academy Award for Documentary Feature at the 78th Academy Awards.


The film opens with a Soviet made Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane landing on Mwanza airfield in Tanzania, near Lake Victoria. The plane came from Europe to ship back processed fillets of Nile Perch, a species of fish introduced into Lake Victoria that has caused the extinction of hundreds of local species.

Through interviews with the Russian and Ukrainian plane crew, local factory owners, guards, prostitutes, fishermen and other villagers, the film discusses the effects of the introduction of the Nile perch to Lake Victoria, how it has affected the ecosystem and economy of the region. The film also dwells at length on the dichotomy between European aid which is being funneled into Africa on the one hand, and the unending flow of munitions and weapons from European arms dealers on the other. Arms and munitions are often flown in on the same planes which transport the Nile perch fillets to European consumers, feeding the very conflicts which the aid was sent to remedy. As Dima, the radio engineer of the plane crew, says later on in the film: the children of Angola receive guns for Christmas, the children of Europe receive grapes. The appalling living and working conditions of the indigenous people, in which basic sanitation is completely absent and many children turn to drugs and prostitution, is covered in great depth; because the Nile perch fish is farmed commercially, all the prime fillets are sold to European supermarkets, leaving the local people to survive on the festering carcasses of the gutted fish.

At one point in the film a local preacher, asked whether he encourages condom use to prevent AIDS, responds that he does not "because it is a sin". As to why the local fish can't be made available to the obviously malnourished African children nearby, one fish processing factory manager explains "it is too expensive".


Seen from the perspective of Tanzanians, particularly those who live and work in Mwanza City on the Tanzanian side of Lake Victoria where Darwin's Nightmare was filmed, the perceived inaccuracies, sensationalism, lack of objectivity and incompleteness result in skepticism as to Hubert Sauper's motives.

In 2006 the Zanzibar film festival (Tanzania's annual premier film and cultural festival) declined to screen Darwin's Nightmare, and the attendant increasing controversy means the debate around the documentary is far from over.

Tanzania's President, Jakaya Kikwete, has spoken out against the film in public on several occasions. Indeed he has questioned the motives of the maker of the documentary, reasoning that if its intent was ostensibly to help Tanzania and residents of Mwanza, in fact the detrimental impact of the sensational publicity accompanying the film would have quite the opposite effect. He has created a special commission of inquiry to establish the impact (if any) that the film has had on Tanzania's export fishing trade and tourism.

However, this fails to address the actual issue: even critics of the introduction agree that the Nile perch has probably benefitted export-oriented fisheries. The negative effects, on the other hand, affected the lake ecology and local subsistence fisheries, which are not subject of the inquiry.

Basically, the Nile perch is the animal equivalent of a cash crop. Locally-manufactured nets used for fishing cichlids are unable to hold the weight of adult Nile perch and get torn apart; Nile perch fishery has to employ monofilament polymer nets which had to be imported at a steep increase in price over the nets used for cichlid fishery. Nile perch have higher fat content than cichlids and must be smoked for local use; they will spoil if dried as is traditionally done with cichlids. This creates an increased demand for firewood in a region already severely affected by deforestation and associated problems like desertification and soil erosion. The wholesale - albeit temporary - destruction of local subsistence fisheries turned many residents into economic refugees and thus likely contributed to the problem of growing urban slums in late 20th century Tanzania. The impact of this is difficult to quantify and may be impossible to quantify, as detailed socioeconomic data from rural Tanzania from the mid-20th century to today would be needed for a thorough assessment.

The Other Side of Darwin's Nightmare, a book written by Francois Garçon who is associated with the University of Paris, was published in 2007 and adds further fuel to the flames of controversy surrounding this film. In an interview with the Tanzanian weekly The Sunday Citizen published on 25th March 2007, Mr Garcon noted in part "To me Darwin's Nightmare is no different to what colonialists did in Africa... we report negative things about this land, but every year we scramble for its resources."

Mr Garçon said he decided to embark on the book after he faced legal threats from director Hubert Sauper. This followed Garçon's critical analysis of the film published by the French newspaper Le Monde in early 2006.


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