The storm that we call progress By Necati Sönmez

in 52th Sydney Film Festival

by Necati Sönmez

Casting an eye over the short synopsis of the film, one may think that s/he is going to see something about a fabulous economical miracle, but they will most probably feel as if they have had a much-needed cold shower by the end of the screening. As one of the most powerful documentaries made in recent years, Darwin’s Nightmare focuses on the hard facts which lie behind most stories of development.

This is the plot: some 40 years ago, a new fish was introduced into Lake Victoria as a scientific experiment and as an attempt to improve the fishing yield in the lake. This giant fish, a predator called the Nile Perch, devastated almost the entire stock of the endemic species of the lake, but it also reproduced quickly and opened the doors to a booming global fishing industry, that provides employment for the locals.

Following the stink of this ‘fishy business’, Austrian director Hubert Sauper manages to capture not only a local ecological disaster but also the picture of the whole continent, in which the storyline is only as a starting point to a series of much more horrific discoveries. Africa ‘s largest lake, situated in the heart of the Great Lakes Region which is said to be the birthplace of mankind, is now more like a graveyard. Surrounded by war-torn countries, Lake Victoria’s ecosystem is totally sick. Behind the huge fishing industry based on the Nile Perch and financed by the World Bank and the European Union, lies a biological and social dead zone over which the huge cargo planes constantly fly.

Prostitution is the only way out for the women whose husbands are taken either by the lake (sometimes eaten by crocodiles) or by the HIV virus, which kills many people every month. Despite the huge amount of fish exported to European consumers, the locals face an absolute famine and struggle to survive by consuming the carcasses of the fish. The ex-Soviet cargo planes carry fish to Europeans and bring back what they have for African children… weapons and ammunition to feed the civil wars raging in the region. Welcome to Mwanza, a town on the Tanzanian shore of Lake Victoria ! This is the land of AIDS , prostitution, homeless children, poverty, violence and desperation.

Darwin’s Nightmare is a story told with striking, unforgettable images. They may be poor in terms of technical quality but powerful enough as first hand knowledge, captured by a handheld camera, to be truly shocking. Except for the statements on the title-cards, the film has no voice-over at all; it is based only on interviews with the locals who express themselves in poignant broken English. More than a filmmaking experience, it is the journey of a filmmaker into the ‘heart of darkness’ trying to dig deeper and deeper into the truths which lie behind the surface. Hubert Sauper approaches the facts he witnesses one after another, not in the style of a white man’s burden who feel pity for the cruel realities of the third world, but rather with the naive curiosity of a child, who keeps asking questions like, “What’s this? And what’s that? And what and why?” Every question reveals yet another tragedy, every image followed by another telling image. Every piece of new information reveals another astounding fact.

This is a record of humankind’s self-destructive extermination of its own roots, the story of globalisation and the relationship between North and South. It brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s famous comment on Paul Klee’s painting entitled Angelus Novus; this is the story of our times from the eyes of the angel of history, whose wings are blown back by ‘the storm that we call progress’.