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AT THE MOVIES: Big Fish in a Small Pond:

Darwin’s Nightmare****With a bare bones film crew and an eye for finding beauty in one of the bleakest and most depressing places on earth, filmmaker Hubert Sauper crawled into a hole in Africa and brought back a haunting and marvelous documentary.Darwin’s Nightmare, one of the five Oscar-nominated documentaries, is a film that hits so hard it may have the potential to actually change things for the people of Tanzania, especially now that it’s been lifted from obscurity by the socially conscious Academy. The film tells all parts of a depressing chain of events in Tanzania when a man, fifty or sixty years ago, dumped a perch into Lake Victoria. That one fish ended up somehow multiplying (life finds a way) and getting bigger and bigger until it finally sucked up all of the lake’s resources, including all other living things. There is now only one kind of fish in the lake. The good news is it sells well in Europe and other wealthy parts of the world. The bad news is it’s too expensive for the locals to afford.Around the lake, (where perhaps families might once have lived off the fish) live drugged-out orphans, prostitutes and people dying of AIDS. The only parts of the fish they’re allowed are the skeletons and heads, which a one-eyed fish monger lays out for stripping. The heads are then fried and sold to people who can afford them.Darwin’s Nightmare examines life from every possible angle to show how life near Lake Victoria could have deteriorated to such an extent. Of course, ask the pilots who come to take the fish if anything is wrong and they won’t talk about it. Ask the wealthy business men and corrupt government officials and they won’t have a clue. It is becoming an all too common sequence in Africa.The film is full of truly unforgettable people and voices. Some of those interviewed have given the predicament a lot of thought and speak articulately about the plight of the poor. Some are there to help, some, like the scarred and weary (but still smiling) prostitutes are merely eking out a pathetic existence one fat Russian john at a time. One woman said she wanted to go to school but couldn’t afford it, of course. Her mother was dead, she didn’t even know where her father was. A few days after her interview, she was killed by one of her customers.In another telling interview, the church pastor tells about the spread of AIDS – how none of the people are wearing condoms to protect themselves. When asked if he counsels people to wear condoms, he says he can’t because it’s a worse sin against God to commit adultery. But by far the worst to bear are the images of the children on the streets of Tanzania. It isn’t only that they prefer to sniff glue made from the plastics they use to pack the fish and that they simply go to sleep for hours at a time. It isn’t even that they have to scrounge for food and become prostitutes at 13. It’s that cyclical nightmare that keeps them exactly where they are generation after generation – no education, no health care, no civilized society.What is so remarkable here is how Saupen has used the metaphor of Darwin to shed light on globalization – the big fish in a small pond that devours the natural resources and upsets the ecosystem and thus renders the pond sterile and ultimately unable to sustain diverse life. Why is it Darwin’s nightmare? Because in Darwin’s world, life flourished with chains of events that helped shape species that led – finally – to human beings. In his nightmare, there would be no new life, just a warped version of it. It’s unusual that such a low-tech documentary would win Academy recognition. Sauper got into a place where cameras will probably ever be allowed again. He captured a perverse moment in time and he did it on the fly – catching whatever he could with his camera and, with the Academy’s help, will now let the world know a very dirty little secret that’s been kept hidden too long. Although it will leave you forever changed, disappointed with mankind in general, and probably depressed as all get out, there is no more important film to see this year than Darwin’s Nightmare, because his nightmare will soon be ours.

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