Darwin’s Nightmare could be one of the scariest movies you ever watch. Documentary film making is an art which, in the right hands, can create a narrative that draws together disparate people, events and even seemingly completely different worlds and leave the rest to us the viewer.
Darwin’s Nightmare is not a flashy Hollywood effort it is a raw, gritty and sometimes scatterbrained effort that makes no pretense at being more complex than following the story of a fish and how it has effected the economy of Tanzania in general and the city of Mwanza in particular. Darwin’s Nightmare is at the best of times a disjointed narrative which ties together Russian cargo pilots, the international arms trade, prostitution, the WTO and World Bank, the EU, glue sniffing street kids, local entrepreneurs, plant managers and a night watchman all in a story about a fish.
Sometime in the 1950’s the Ugandan Game and Fisheries Department introduced the Nile Perch into Lake Victoria as a means of encouraging sport fishing and the fisheries in general. The Nile Perch is a keystone species – a top level predator – that steadily decimated the native Cichlid population of the lake to the point at which there is practically nothing left of the native fish. The Nile Perch on the other hand is a cash crop for the fishermen where the Cichlids were not.
We get a close up view of the fall out over this change of species in Lake Victoria. Not everything laid at the door of the Nile Perch is the fault of the Perch or its introduction. On the other hand many events, social, political and economic were heavily influenced by the Nile Perch. At the microeconomic level the lives of those in Mwamza are held in the economic gravity of the Nile Perch and the industry which has grown up around it. There are no good or bad people per se in this documentary. Fish plant owners are local entrepreneurs who employ thousands of local workers. Fishermen are just that, fishermen. Prostitutes are frequently women who’s fishermen husbands have died – sometimes on the water and sometimes of HIV/AIDS. The cargo pilots don’t ask questions they deliver cargo. The powerlessness of the Lake Victoria fish population is similar to that of the population of Mwanza in the face of the EU and the World Bank. It isn’t difficult to see the parallels between the Nile Perch and the EU and if the movie were that facile it probably wouldn’t have won an Academy Award.
Darwin’s Nightmare can be a bit plodding at times as the viewer attempts to piece together pieces of the narrative into something coherent. It is without a doubt though one of the most thought provoking movies you will ever see.
Note: This movie is not rated but should be considered an R rating for subject matter. Discussions in the movie involve adult themes and images which are not suitable for young viewers in this reviewer's opinion.