There's no voice-over narration in ''Darwin's Nightmare," Hubert Sauper's despairing, essential documentary about environmental and social cataclysm in Africa. No soothing tones of Morgan Freeman to help you figure out what to think. The film throws us into an unbearable situation and lets us find our way, much as the people of Mwanza, Tanzania, have.
Some well-fed American audiences may blame the messenger for not providing the comfort of documentary hand-holds when they're really reacting to his message, a harrowing vision of global commerce run amok. The film's great strength is that it doesn't let us look away, provided we're willing to look in the first place.
Sometime in the past few decades, somebody introduced the Nile perch to the waters of Lake Victoria. A massive predator, the fish quickly wiped out over 200 competing species, but the ''upside," such as it is, is that this fleshy food fish is much in demand in Europe and Japan. A new economy quickly sprang up in lakeside towns like Mwanza and Musoma, with local fishermen delivering perch to factories where fellow villagers fillet the catch and load it onto planes bound for the tables of developed nations.
What sounds like healthy reciprocal capitalism plays out as a worst-case scenario of exploitation and societal damage. With the factories owned by East Indian immigrants, townspeople can't afford the fish they catch; Sauper follows the trail of cast-off perch heads as they're shipped to villages for frying and eating.
Meanwhile, famine looms and 2 million Tanzanians face starvation. Government officials watch a video warning of oncoming ecological catastrophe -- with nothing else to eat, the perch have started devouring their own young -- and pooh-pooh it as alarmism. ''We are here to sell our country and sell our fish," says one bureaucrat. The one man hired to guard the national fisheries site is paid $1 a day.
By contrast, a pretty young Mwanza prostitute named Eliza makes $10 a date, mostly from the Russian and Australian pilots who fly the fish out; despite her relatively high position in the social pecking order, her ultimate fate is horrific. The factory towns are revealed as wastelands of violent, inhalant-sniffing orphans and HIV-infected adults. A local pastor politely tells Sauper that condoms are sinful and therefore inadvisable.
Can it get any worse? Sure it can: Stories abound that the airplanes don't arrive empty but full of weapons for sale to Rwanda and other hot spots. As the director tracks the rumors to the ground, a larger global trade emerges, one that exports plenty and imports misery. The film's quiet, shameful climax comes when Sauper interviews a Russian pilot who confesses to flying tank parts to Angola and stopping in Johannesburg to pick up a load of grapes before returning home on Christmas Day. ''Angolan children got guns for Christmas; European kids got grapes," the pilot says with tipsy guiltiness. ''This is business."
True enough, and Sauper makes it our business in a brave, unstinting work of terrible news. The movie could use a bit more focus, and I wish the director had followed the money trail more closely, but his unhysterical analysis of the world's food chain is sobering viewing. By the end of the film, we've come to understand that the Nile perch isn't Darwin's nightmare. We are.