Fish, Planes, and Globalization

In the mid-1960s, a new species of fish, the Nile perch, was introduced in Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest. In the mid-1990s, Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper went to the shores of the lake, in Tanzania, to film how the species, now one of the country’s main exports, had obliterated all others in the lake and even became cannibalistic. In the mid-2000s, the film “Darwin’s Nightmare” opened at the Venice Film Festival, shocked audiences worldwide, and has since been nominated as Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.

This documentary, a brilliant example of artistic expression in the service of social commentary, uses fish as a political metaphor for globalization, and, in doing so, challenges the notion of documentary film “propaganda.”

The Nile perch, which was introduced almost 40 years ago, is now a very important source of revenue for Tanzania and constitutes its largest export to the European Union. In the old continent, almost two million people enjoy Nile perch fillets each day. On the other side of the world, the same number of people starves in Tanzania. To carry fresh fish, mammoth Russian carrier planes depart from Mwanza Airport in Tanzania and arrive a few days later eager for more. The marvel of foreign currency creates a market for security guards, who risk their lives for a dollar a night, and for local prostitutes, who cater to the lonely plane pilots. After months of bonding between Sauper’s team of two and this eclectic variety of workers, the filmmakers obtained honest confessions that illustrate the collateral damage of poorly regulated international trade. A recurrent question adds both suspense and cohesion to the film: as the planes take fish to Europe, what do they bring to Africa?

In developing his answer, Sauper provides a luminous critique of the dark face of globalization, showing how those that prepare tasty fillets for Parisian restaurants cannot afford food for themselves. The recurrent cycles of exploitation and “unnatural selection,” as the Washington Post calls them, are framed in an aesthetically rich film, with gifted visually alternating sequences and a subtle soundtrack.

Even more importantly, amidst these fish, metaphors, and critiques, “Darwin’s Nightmare” demonstrates the validity of political expression in art today. In recent years, particularly with Michael Moore’s films like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” both casual viewers and uptight critics questioned whether political documentaries constitute “propaganda.” With each box office hit also came strong critiques and even counter-argumentative books and films.

As Saupert himself acknowledges, “propaganda” is a dreaded concept in art circles. The qualms spring from the historical association of non-fictional artistic expression and extreme ideologies. Just as the word “genocide” has stronger social connotations than “mass killing,” the term “propaganda” instantly catapults us to the dark deeds of Nazi Information Minister Joseph Goebbels and the darling of the regime, Leni Riefenstahl, who shot the dubiously acclaimed “Triumph of the Will.”

The association of political films with propaganda springs partially from their similarly visceral impact and their ability to affect the viewer; however, as a spectator pointed out after Sauper’s screening of “Darwin’s Nightmare” two months ago at the Harvard Film Archive, any successful art form shakes viewers emotionally. This effect should not be deemed as ghastly or even as a synonym of the much feared “propaganda.” In fact, it is quite the opposite. Drawing from scholarly research by P. M. Taylor, the main difference between art and propaganda is not that hard to spot: the first does not advance any particular course of action to change the status quo. The latter, on the other hand, presents a problem and also the supposedly ideal behavior for audiences to follow.

In the case of “Darwin’s Nightmare”, the movie is as powerful as it is disturbing. With time, the viewers learn that one of the prostitutes is beaten to death and that the guards are eager for war as a way to achieve promising social mobility. But most shockingly, we are provided with an answer to the initial question. At the climax of the movie, a likeable Ukrainian carrier pilot reveals that the same flights that export fish to Europe bring weapons from illegal European Union dealers into the jungles of Africa. In a word, Europeans get good tasty fillets, and Africa gets deadly AK-47s.

Sauper, however, masterfully resists the temptation to which other good filmmakers often give in: he does not provide any ideal solution, enlightened path, or Messiah-like revelation. One-hundred seven minutes of hard-to-digest reality rapidly come to an end. But as artistic masterpieces ought to do, it will keep any viewer thinking for a long time to come: about fish, about globalization, and about what each of us can do. In Sauper’s own words, he merely “gets some brains boiling.” By avoiding the dangers of propaganda and staying in the realm of art, he successfully challenges audiences worldwide. And with some luck, this might earn him an Academy Award in less than a month.

Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.