The ambiguity of Darwin’s Nightmare

Olivier Barlet

Translated by Kyana LeMaitre
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The 14th conference on documentary film was organised by the CLEMI (Centre de liaison de l’enseignement et des medias d’information), a French centre that promotes training in media studies. It was held at Toulouse’s film library, from 24 to 27 January 2006. Its theme was « Vues d’ailleurs – filmer l’étranger » [images of elsewhere – filming a foreign country](1). I was invited to address the attendees on the day dedicated to Africa. Two relatively similar films were screened at my suggestion. Henri-François Imbert’s Doulaye, a Rainy Season and Abderrahmane Sissako’s Rostov-Luanda both focus on the search for an old friend in a foreign setting. The conference’s excellent moderator, François Niney, a professor at Femis (France’s national film school) and the Sorbonne, requested a screening of the film Darwin’s Nightmare in the morning session, followed by a debate with the film’s director, Hubert Sauper. It was not easy to find myself discussing a film that seriously troubles me, and there was no question of criticizing its socially-conscious and sincere director. The debate proved to be informative for us all, and especially for me, as it helped me to understand Hubert Sauper’s approach to his work. The documentary was hugely successful with French movie-goers, whereas films made by African directors generally tend to have the opposite effect. It therefore seems important to explore the reasons behind this fact and closely examine the relationship between this particular film and its viewers. By no means am I claiming to know the absolute truth and I would like the debate to continue via reader feedback, at the end of the article.


Because I was in Africa when Darwin’s Nightmare was being premiered to the press in the build-up to its public release, I only saw it later on, at a cinema in the small town of Nyons. This cinema, which is run by the extremely dedicated Jean-Claude Georgel, attracts close to 50,000 viewers per year to its two movie theatres, with a high-level of programming that caters to cinema enthusiasts. The theatre was practically full, which was rather remarkable for a documentary on Africa. After the film, the audience was visibly overwhelmed and mentally bruised. Contrary to their custom, since these were people who knew each other for the most part, they left the theatre in a heavy silence. When people could finally speak, the general impression seemed to be that « the world is in such a sad state of affairs »!
Curious to see their reactions, I showed the film to the participants of a workshop on film reviewing in Dakar, in December 2005 (see the article Dakar 2005: au delà du formatage, la representation). They were similarly overwhelmed, but this time the reaction was more territorial: « that’s Africa for you! »
Remembering the horror
Each person took the film’s message directly to heart. The Westerners were wrapped up in the shame of having profited from international systems of exploitation; the Africans were caught up in their problems. No one could see a way out. Nevertheless one thing was clear at the Dakar workshop – the ensuing discussion quickly showed that the participants did not share this extremely negative vision of Africa. They also agreed that while misery exists in numerous forms, focusing only on this misery gives a very limited view of reality, excluding its complexities and above all else, its vigour. However, the capacity to even make this analysis was momentarily hindered by the images’shocking effect.
In Toulouse, Sauper revealed that he had the film in his head before he actually filmed it. This explains his « casting » concerns, as he puts it, with regard to finding the right situations and the right people to demonstrate his ideas. He speaks about his film and his commitment to the cause with touching sincerity. According to Sauper, the film translates his fascination for the place itself, and for Raphaël, the night watchman who became both his guide and interpreter. « I was revolted, and I wanted to transmit this to the viewer, » explains the director in a bonus interview with Claude-Eric Poiroux, on the film’s DVD.
This misery is not exclusive to Africa. Sauper admits that he could have filmed other continents or made a film « on bananas and shrimp », as he ironically puts it, but that just as he would never advise people to stop buying bananas, the aim of the film was not to incite people to stop eating Nile perch. He does not claim to have the solution. His sole objective is to help people « understand the images that are shown on TV ». « If we see, we can understand the statistics that we read, » he adds in the DVD’s bonus interview.
We have already seen the horrors shown in Darwin’s Nightmare, we already know about them, they are a part of our relationship with the rest of the world. Why then is this slap-in-the-face of a wakeup call necessary? What kind of fascination makes us pay money to undergo this emotional shock once more? This question was broached during the debate, but pushed aside on the pretext that a film’s success does not mean it should be condemned or assumed to be suspect. I completely agree with this point of view, but it does not help us understand why this particular film corresponds so well to viewers’expectations (huge media success in the media, in festivals, with critics, in theatres, positive word-of-mouth feedback). Sauper proposes that « the film’s aesthetic structure is responsible for its success ». It does in fact stand out from other informative or educational documentaries. In the discussion at the Dakar workshop, it was generally agreed that Sauper is very good at imposing his own vision as the absolute truth.
He never questions his gaze. On the contrary, camera shots are frequently juxtaposed, contributing to the seemingly unequivocal portrayal of reality. The images speak for themselves – it suffices to capture them by jumping into the quagmire. No one can deny that Sauper does this. He films from the back of a truck transporting repulsive fish waste. He does not simply film a picture postcard Africa. His previous film, Kisangani Diary–Far from Rwanda, which traces Rwandan refugees who flee to Zaire, is a veritable trip to hell – an honest testimony of his great sense of helplessness (he thought he would just find a few hundred refugees, but came upon tens of thousands of them living in appalling conditions). « You have to take the cover off the world’s garbage can and jump in to film this sort of thing, » he explains in the DVD interview. His films make people extremely uncomfortable because they show a lot of ugliness and they give the impression of revealing things that are hidden or invisible.
There is no accompanying commentary. A few inserts provide snippets of information. Sauper never appears onscreen. He is no Michael Moore. He is not doing this for himself, even if his films sell well. This assertion would only be an accusation if, of course, the emotion transmitted by the images had a sole purpose – to be consumed. Sauper’s talent consists of intuitively drawing the viewer into his distress, into his feeling of alarm, into what can be rightly described as a nightmare. « It is in the viewer’s brain that the nightmare becomes coherent, » is how he explains this in the DVD interview. His films are definitely evocative of a dream-like style of writing – a succession of shocking scenes that are all allegorical, haunting, combined into meaningful puzzles and developed by a series of transfers that serve to increase the tension.
Disturbing close-up face shots sustain this tension. Sauper revealed during the debate that they represent the closeness he feels for the people he films. But are these close-ups, which become a sort of imposed introspection, really necessary to transmit this? Do they give these people any dignity?
From reality to truth
The film begins with a fantastic shot of a plane’s shadow on the surface of Lake Victoria, accompanied by the sweet sound of a Russian song (« To show that life exists, despite everything, » explained Sauper during the debate). However, this is quickly contrasted by the wild pursuit of a bee, within the control tower, by the employee charged with guiding planes with his broken radio. The bee is finally slain by a few blows dealt with a note-pad. There is a close-up shot of the crushed bee as it slides down the window pane. This unfortunate insect is our introduction to the ecological catastrophe facing a lake in distress (because of the predatory habits of the gigantic Nile perch, which was introduced there 40 years ago and which ended up devouring 90% of the other species, thereby destroying the lake’s ecological balance, as it has slowly been taken over by algae) and the « collateral damage » of the intensive exploitation and exportation of the perch to European markets.
Two overlapping illustrations give a global vision that smacks of alter-globalism, but which reveals itself to be Manichean at the very least. On the one hand, the massive exportation literally takes the bread away from African mouths, driving the population into famine and into all the evils usually associated with misery (prostitution, Aids, violence, etc.). On the other hand, this exportation is even more immoral because it leads to arms traffic that allows them to kill each other. It is therefore through the revelation of this local situation, this sadistic and murderous system, that capitalist exploitation of the world is denounced. The gap between ‘general’and ‘specific’gradually narrows throughout the film, as the two illustrations fuel each other and overlap. What is striking is that these illustrations do not follow the same logic as in most documentaries. There are no figures, no economic arguments, no interviews, no press reports, but rather a head-first dive. Through successive scenes, Sauper moves away from his principal subject (fishing) to better pinpoint his general perception. His teaching methods are based on emotional shocks, in what can only be the truth.
Let there be no mistake: I have absolutely no doubt about the cynicism of the world’s economic system, or about the measures it takes to prevent us from staring reality in the face, nor do I hold any doubts concerning the corruption or blindness of leaders in the North as much as in the South. In fact, I have absolutely no qualms about the need to repeat the message from time to time in order to keep ourselves from forgetting about it, cooped up as we are in our comfort and our wealth. What bothers me is a film that controls images better than the control tower at Mwanza controls its planes, with an editing style that does not allow me to reflect on the complexity of the situation. In film, emotion is created by a well-orchestrated setting and aesthetic strategies. It either meets the needs of viewers by giving them their ‘fix’or it mobilises them in order to create a certain autonomy of thought. In other words, emotion helps viewers to construct their own starring roles in the world and in their own lives.
« It’s incredible what we manage to do at the editing table, » says Sauper in the DVD interview. The image is a weapon and it cherishes any effect. « Our culture doesn’t wish to look death in the eye, » he remarked during the debate. « It’s similar to homophobia. I think it’s important to restore this uneasiness. » And he does. A woman who is setting rotting fish carcasses to dry on racks has one eye hidden by a piece of cloth. The ammonia-filled gases given off by the rotting fish eat away at the eye. Even though it is not intentional, revealing this missing eye throws the viewer into a state of terror.
Shared responsibility?
We pass directly to a conference held by the European Union’s delegation to Dar-es-Salaam, where we learn that the larger part of Nile perch exports from Tanzania is destined for Europe, and that processing plants, thanks to EU funding, respect international hygiene and quality standards. In principle there is nothing wrong with Europeans inquiring about the quality of products they import and eat, but they could at the same time show concern for the consequences on local populations. Sauper revealed during the debate that European authorities know perfectly well that local populations can no longer afford the fish when it is transformed into fillets by modern processing plants, that they are only left with the carcass heads, which are consumed throughout the country. They also know that at the time of filming, as was shown on televisions all over the world, Tanzania was hard-hit by famine, and that 17 million dollars were needed to feed the two million people affected by poor rice harvests.
The film therefore reveals the macabre hypocrisy behind an entire production destined for exportation to rich countries, while for the country’s poor the only remaining choice is to eat the carcasses that are dried and grilled in more than questionable hygiene conditions. Sauper then turns his camera to a little handicapped girl passing in the road – a recurring figure in the film – on whom he zooms in before returning to the European delegates. The next scene is introduced as follows: a group of street children are fighting over a meal that is too meagre to feed them all and they are snatching food from each other. This scene provides the shocking image of one of the children as he opens his mouth and stares at the camera, which is later used to promote the film.
Filming and showing a full frontal view of a woman suffering from Aids, who is extremely weak and who indicates that she can no longer eat, is not at all neutral. The image is shocking. Not only does it reveal the absurdity behind the reasoning of the Catholic priest who condemns the condom as a sin, but it is also part of a mechanism that lays down Africa’s different miseries, one after the other, as the products of an immoral and pitiless international system. It all lies in the dosage – Sauper tells us that he could have also filmed the woman’s brother, who was suffering next to her, dribble running down his chin. In Kisangani Diary, when he filmed television journalists who were themselves filming a starving woman in an extreme state of weakness, Sauper is not only offering us a reflection on the act of filming, but he musters up the shame felt by the viewer-consumer (who identifies with the images of the incredibly humane Russian pilots, who, in order to keep their jobs, turn a blind eye to their cargo) as an unwitting participant in the world’s chaos.
The keys to success
The fundamental ambiguity lies in determining if shock images really do mobilise people. During the debate, one viewer thanked the director for encouraging her to pursue her struggle as a militant. Does this mean that shock is therefore a mobilising force? This same viewer also admitted that when she saw the film with some friends, they were left speechless. Other conversations with viewers have also confirmed that the film overwhelmed them and brought on a certain resignation.
One viewer indicated during the debate that, for him, the film gave rise to a huge sense of guilt. Is it cheap psychology to remind people that feelings of guilt help the ego? They only make you cry for yourself. Can these crocodile tears explain the film’s success? Or is it that since cinema translates reality, Sauper has found a means of representing the disgust that we all presently feel with regard to the state of the world? If this is so, he is therefore revealing a situation that is simply representative of our times.
Because they receive a lot of media coverage, shocking images sell. Members of the public take great pleasure in them. They ask for more. A surprising phenomenon of self-punishment causes them to rush to see a film that they know will upset them and from which they will not be able to extract themselves. This falls under film’s function of collective emotion-sharing with regard to common references. Seen on an individual level, and in a different context, Darwin’s Nightmare would not have the same effect. The television viewer would perhaps change the channel to a less dismal or troubling programme. In film theatres, there is a sort of almost religious mass where the members of the audience comfortably seated in their chairs share the horror they hold for the world’s dreadfulness. They can then speak of the shock they underwent and enhance it in the eyes of their friends, while inciting them to share in it. Emmanuel Ethis has shown that « it is reassuring to be collectively afraid » (3). He also demonstrated that this is done among people who come together according to common interests, in this case people sharing the same political and humanitarian tendencies. In the cinema, like elsewhere, demonstrations in most cases only convince those who are already convinced.
The film was lauded almost everywhere (Angers, Toronto, Venice, etc.) and it took the French box-office by storm. With the invigorating exception of a few sceptic voices (cf. Phillipe Mangeot’s excellent article in Les Cahiers du Cinéma), critics have been unanimous: do not miss this « alarming summary that calmly dissects the most terrible horrors » (Première), this « superb documentary that is so reminiscent of a detective novel » (Télérama, which declared it film of the year), this « new apocalyptic vision of Africa » (Les Inrockuptibles), this « breathtaking plunge into the cynicism of the most powerful and into the bowels of misery » (Rolling Stone), this file that is « as tense as a thriller, as nerve-wracking as a detective novel and as compelling as a melodrama » (Ouest France), this « gripping film noir » (Libération).
This film noir. Is this reference to a film category the key to recognition? Is it this feeling of déjà vu that convinces us? In the film we come across nocturnal secrets, the balance of light and dark, a fixation on eyes and on silence, an investigation which gradually reveals a plot that turns out to be bigger than first believed.
What then is this strange fascination with a truth that is revealed through crushing blows, but that every one knows so well – the neglect, the frightening immorality of the world? If the public is so fond of demonstrations of North-South relations, it would have acclaimed Olivier Zuchuat’s Djourou, A Rope Around Your Neck, which went unnoticed. What is it that allows us to confirm the « objectivity » or the « evidence » of Darwin’s Nightmare (Chronic’art)? Since when is an image objective or evident even though it is the result of a process of construction?
Claiming complexity
We do not for one instant doubt the director’s sincerity. If he says so, then there must be weapons in the planes. Saupert gains the pilots’trust by never revealing his true aim, and in the end their silent responses to his questions are enough to convince us. We believe because we already know that these weapons, which are destroying Africa, have to come from somewhere. So why not from them, especially since the airport does not seem to be excessively monitored? There is no scrupulousness (journalistic or otherwise) in this film. We share the director’s convictions, we believe him based on the images. And therein lies the true role of the place that he attributes to us, that of intuitively and not rationally sharing his certitude, instead of coming up with our own relation between the images and the vision they generate.
So is our vision of the world going to be based on rumours? We all suspected that capitalism doesn’t let anybody off lightly, but does it have to be to the detriment of all complexity? Isn’t Mwanza but a display of the misery uncovered by the film? Doesn’t a flourishing industry, even if it occasions ecological and human problems, bring benefits to the region in which it is located? Even if this is limited to employment? A quick look at Kenyan newspapers (The Standard and The Nation) shows that a campaign against the film was organised by the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation and by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which were both responsible for organising the conference shown in the film. It is clear that this was done in an effort to defend the interests of those who profit from the system. However, the letter sent to the film’s producers by their two representatives, Thomas Maembe and Dr Alice Kaudia, condemns the film’s one-sidedness. They claim that no mention is made of local fisherman who profit from fish exports, and that the documentary only highlights a small group of people on the lake’s Tanzanian side (it is also bordered by Kenya and by Uganda).
My first question to Sauper was therefore to ask if he had looked for any resistance groups. Are any African ecologists, NGOs, community groups or newspaper journalists tackling the problem with a hands-on approach? During the Nyerere era, Tanzania developed many village-based production units. What has become of them? Aren’t we once more entering into the vision of a victimised Africa, incapable of taking care of itself, whose salvation lays in the awakening of White consciences?
His response was disturbing. During the four years it took to make this film, he constantly searched for forms of resistance but found none, except for a single article written by an investigative journalist from The East African, who was invited to take part in the film, by denouncing the presence of arms on board the planes, before the storm took place.
However, Sauper emphasises the street child who talks about what he wants to be when he grows up. Yes, this is a spark of life, a spark of hope, as are the colourful drawings done by a youth who describes his violent surroundings. This is a lead that the director could have developed, but lost in the film’s flood of misery. How can we pay any attention to it? The despondency persists, without any hope of change. Why react, when the world is hopeless and when all leaders are corrupt? Isn’t this an extended trivialization of the views expressed by extreme right-wingers, in following with the troubling contamination of political debates these days? By presenting international systems in white and black, Darwin’s Nightmare simply conveys the director’s distress to viewers, instead of inciting them to react. Isn’t he turning people away from politics rather than mobilising them?
Re-enchanting the world
Sauper seemed convinced that his film could make people reflect and force them into action. That afternoon, Rostov-Luanda featured a broadly smiling woman who gently explained that Angola was already at war when she was born and that « mankind does not and will never share ». Effectively, I do not place much belief in the repentance of the wealthy. To maintain this « hope at all costs » to which Sissako makes reference, after having observed the decrepitude of a battered country, it is clear that economic and political systems, as they exist today, are incapable of saving Africa. To do this, there is a need for more social pressure and cultural offensives. Recent deaths in Ceuta and Melilla have undoubtedly done more than European aid for Mwanza’s fisheries can ever do to change North-South relations. Films made by African directors are certainly better than political speeches at preparing our consciences for the re-enchantment of the world (to borrow Ben Okri’s phrase).
It is not about opposing North and South – there is no black or white point of view. Everywhere in the world there are central zones surrounded by peripheries, powers with alternatives and dominant views that are met with resistance. Contemporary artistic expression clearly shows that present-day analyses are no longer based on a sense of territory or on legitimacy of identity and, furthermore, that these factors have been replaced by a real connection with human problems.
This implies a new way of considering the world, which, although increasingly creolised, conserves its wealth of variety. However, this is hardly ever captured or portrayed by disenchanting films. It can be highlighted through ‘afternoon’films that give viewers a new perspective on reclaiming destiny, by showing the filmed subjects themselves that they are capable of reacting, intervening and taking the film into their own hands.

1. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
2. In Sociologie du cinema et de ses publics, Armand Colin p. 26.
///Article N° : 5745

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