Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) – Film Analysis


Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University

It is obvious to everyone, many things have been changing and today the earth is going into environmental crisis. Since the nature is seen as a kind of free gift that can be used and transformed in the market, exploitation of the nature has increased. In this context, ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ is a really good documentary in terms of showing the capitalist exploitation of environment. Thus, in this essay, I will try to evaluate the elements of liberal utilitarian approach and capitalist exploitation of environment presented in the film Darwin’s Nightmare. First, to get a complete picture, I will briefly summarize the main theme and the key points in the film. Further, I will discuss the topic of globalization respectively colonization and their relations with capitalism. Then, I will move on an analysis how capitalism gives harm to the environment and of course to the humans. Finally, before making a conclusion in order to summarize of the key points presented in the main part, I will try to point out some shortcomings of the film.

To begin with, Darwin’s nightmare is a documentary on Lake Victoria of Tanzania where is the world’s biggest tropical lake and one day a predatory fish, the Nile perch, came to the lake and wiped out all the other variety of fish that the lake used to have. Then the Nile perch became one of most important commodity for starving Tanzanian families, which is sold in European and Japanese markets. The film deals with not only a fish that are killing everything else but also prostitutes getting killed, mercenary pilots flying with fish, homeless children sniffing glue as well as starving people who suffering from HIV diseases.

The film is initially presented an introduction to globalization by using a metaphor of Nile perch in order to show the impact of globalization and capitalism on local industry. Throughout the film, Lake Victoria became a name to symbolize the global capitalism. Since the Nile perch is an exportable and highly profitable commodity for Tanzania to European market, a bucket of Nile perch were injected into Tanzania’s Lake Victoria. Nevertheless the results were goes so bad- the Nile perch as a very big and predatory fish destroyed all the other species that keep the lake alive so the ecosystem in the lake is dies. Just like global capitalism destroyed and wiped out local industries all around the world, the Nile perch did the same.  So the existence of the Nile perch is a metaphor to exemplify the global capitalism and the small town Mwanza is small module of globalization.

Another important issue the film touches is that capitalism as a form of organization does not plan the future or make any plans about it. Even if the natural limits of their activities are very clear and obvious, capitalism just continues to exploitation of environment without any conscious. When the time come and all the resources are used and destroyed as a result of capitalist exploitation, the capitalists just move a new area of exploitation. Thus, capitalists solely specialize on their short-term interests rather than planning ahead. Just like presented in the film, therefore, destruction of the environment in Lake Victoria is not prevented by capitalists who get profit from the lake since capitalists ignore the natural limits of resources, think only their own self interests even it harms the rest of the society.

The next issue explained in the film is that ecological destruction harms everyone but mostly to the poor. Since the rich people have a self-reliant way of life and they only think their own welfare, they do not worry about the environmental crisis. Even if the crisis starts effecting their life, they can easily escape and move another place to continue to live. Thus they have an attitude of ‘not in my backyard’. Whereas the poor is mostly influenced and suffered from the environmental crisis just like it presented in the documentary.  For example, as a result destruction of the biodiversity in the Lake Victoria, the future of the poor local people is very bleak and dark. Therefore, environmentalism does not only means organic food or tote bags as the most of the rich people think.

As noted before, the film points out a variety of issues-war, poverty, prostitution, environmental crisis and the most importantly global capitalism. Despite all these significant issues addressed throughout the film, it still has several shortcomings. Firstly, the film is very disappointed regarding the context of it since some parts are not clearly explained or exemplified. For example, environmental context of the film is not sufficient enough. A big predatory fish, the Nile perch affects the biodiversity of the lake and it destroys all the other species living in the lake but this situation does not presented well in the film. Secondly, the film present only negative and dark side of a dualistic reality and it completely ignores the positive and good sides. Besides that, while prostitution, HIV virus, homeless children and so on so forth are not only special to Tanzania, they all can be found in different parts of the word, the director Hubert Sauper with a stereotypical, biased Western view  to Africa dramatize the situation in Tanzania. Thus, instead of presenting the counter parts and leave the viewers free to decide and choose their own opinion, the documentary left no open door for discussion or different points of view. Additionally, I personally disappointed about the amount of the interviews throughout the documentary. For instance, no governmental official or experts are interviewed. In terms of people who are interviewed, most of them are not fluent in English so complex and serious subjects are not explained very well.  Thus, this made the documentary a kind ‘question asker’ instead of answering the questions. Lastly, the film has no storyline since it was not professionally edited and recorded.

All in all, Darwin’s Nightmare is a documentary directed by Hubert Sauper and it explores the economic, social and ecological situation in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria and mirrors the life around the Lake Victoria- factory workers, owners, fisherman, pilots, homeless children, prostitutes and so on so forth. The film is not only represent many significant issues but also it use a metaphor of big predatory fish, the Nile perch in order to exemplify the severe effects of global capitalism to the local industries, however, it does not do so very effectively because of its several shortcomings as mentioned before. Despite all, it is a good documentary and it can be recommended for the ones who still not sure about the negative sides of the free trade and global capitalism.