“Darwin’s Nightmare” is an exercise in irony that probably would not have been lost on Charles Darwin himself, who by all accounts was a lucid if embittered scholar with a penchant for sardonic humor. The lessons to be culled from this documentary are so varied that it’s impossible to take it all in at a single viewing; well aware of this, the Japanese distributor held a symposium and press conference to sift through the material. What emerged was a sense that this was no distant phenomenon but an issue very close to home — as director Hubert Sauper stressed: “This is not an isolated African problem but one that mirrors the particular time we live in.” As such, there is no solution. Sauper points out: “What remains is a terrible sense of discomfiture,” which is probably the understatement of the year. He went on to take questions.
How did you decide on the material for this film?
I was filming a documentary on the civil war in Congo, and in the process I became friendly with the Russian pilots who were carrying fish back to Europe for restaurant and supermarket consumption. And then I found out that on the flight in, these pilots were transporting land mines, tanks and prosthetic arms and legs for the victims whose limbs were about to be blown off by those very weapons. Then I heard about the Nile perch in Lake Victoria and how the same thing could be happening there. I felt that this story had to be told.
What did you hope to achieve with this story?
“Personally, I felt extremely uncomfortable. I hoped the audience would share in this [discomfort] because, as you can see from the film, it’s not an African problem but a symptom typical of the times we live in. . . . I wanted to avoid posing a solution because, as far as I can see, there is none — at least not in the short term. But I did want to convey the feeling that we must look for a way out of this problem and that we have to start looking soon.
What was the Tanzanian government’s response to the movie?
As you’d expect, it was extremely negative and Tanzania banned the film. The president called me “the devil” and issued a public statement that everything in the film was entirely fictional. I cared less about the officials and the rich not seeing it, and more about the poor witnessing their plight on-screen and knowing that someone cared about their opinions enough to make a movie about them. I wanted to make their voices heard, because their voices are never heard. When the Tanzanian government says “We,” it means itself and the moneyed elite. The rest of the people are of no account and I felt that had to be rectified.
In your view, what is at the root of the African problem?
My view is that the African problem, as it were, is a global one. We are all in on this planet, and we are all guilty. On the other hand, for many in the industrialized world the African problem doesn’t exist because Africa doesn’t exist. It’s too far away, something glimpsed sometimes on the news and with problems so terrible and remote that they have nothing to do with us. But the least we can do is to look at the system and know how it works, to have a sense of rage against it. Because as I keep saying, it’s something that reflects modern society as a whole. Africa is not invisible. Its people are not invisible. If the audience can recognize this, and get to know the world of people like Raphael and Eliza, then I will have succeeded somewhat.”