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Fish, guns, and famine

The year's best documentary about the animal world doesn't feature any penguins

An image from the Oscar-nominated documentary 'Darwin's Nightmare,' which deals with the environmental havoc wreaked on Lake Victoria and the people of Tanzania.
An image from the Oscar-nominated documentary "Darwin's Nightmare," which deals with the environmental havoc wreaked on Lake Victoria and the people of Tanzania.

WHEN THE ACADEMY AWARD for Best Documentary is presented tonight, one nominee will have more fans than all its competitors combined: ''March of the Penguins," the charming nature film that has already become the fourth-highest-grossing documentary of all time, behind only ''Woodstock," ''Fahrenheit 9/11," and ''That's Entertainment."

This success is not accidental. Directed by Luc Jacquet and narrated for the American audience by Morgan Freeman, ''March of the Penguins" is a beautifully filmed example of the traditional nature documentary. It offers an intimate glimpse into the family lives of wild creatures, emphasizing nature's exoticism even as it tames it, showing us the characteristics other animals share with us. Penguins may seem odd-funny walk, funny habits-but their quirks are endearing, and the film's depiction of parents sharing hatching duties while the entire penguin community bands together to survive the Antarctic winter has inspired cultural conservatives to extol their anthropomorphized ''family values."

But there is more than one way to make a nature film. Another of this year's Oscar-nominated documentaries, ''Darwin's Nightmare," with its startling depiction of evolution, globalization, and social disintegration in Africa, represents a potent alternative vision of the genre's possibilities. Where ''March of the Penguins" suggests reassuringly that the penguins' sheer resilience will keep them alive, as it always has, ''Darwin's Nightmare" is a disconcerting and dystopian look at the human capacity to wreak environmental havoc, with no happy ending in sight. Less pleasant to watch than penguins, but just as carefully constructed, ''Darwin's Nightmare" offers a more complex and relevant examination of the natural world today.

. . .

Directed by the Austrian Hubert Sauper, ''Darwin's Nightmare" takes place around the city of Mwanza, Tanzania, on the shores of mighty Lake Victoria-site of an ecological disaster. In the 1960s, regional authorities introduced the Nile perch into its waters, apparently intended as a new source of food, although whether for locals or for export remains unclear. The perch, a six-foot-long predator, quickly decimated the native fish populations and ruined the lake's biodiversity.

Yet this is only one aspect of the ''nightmare." The others involve human society. The Nile perch, it turns out, provides plenty of food-for Europe, that is, where large Tanzanian fisheries sell it more profitably than they can in Africa. Meanwhile, as many Tanzanians go hungry, individual fishermen lack the smaller fish they once caught.

Camera in hand, Sauper ranges widely to document this new fishing economy, taking us on boats, inside fish-packing plants, on nights out with homeless children, and to lakeside settlements where itinerant workers have contracted AIDS. We see famished orphans fighting each other for food and sniffing glue from plastic fish wrappers. In one hell-on-earth tableau, laborers dry filleted fish carcasses on acres of outdoor racks, where maggots and birds feast before the leftovers are sold locally-the only pieces of perch staying in Mwanza.

Sauper, director of ''Kisangani Diary," a documentary about the Rwandan genocide, also dwells on a tangential problem. Some cargo planes taking perch to Europe import arms for Africa's wars-an exchange not uncommon across the continent, whether involving fish from Tanzania or produce from other countries. As a Russian pilot admits: ''The children of Angola received guns for Christmas, and the children of Europe received grapes. This is business." The adverse effects of local environmental changes, Sauper implies, are compounded by the reach of global trade.

In surveying humanity's collision with the environment, Sauper examines matters often absent from the nature film genre. He gives us nature in turmoil, full of irreversible changes, failing ecosystems, and invasive species precipitating widespread extinctions, resulting in unexpected social consequences. At a time when leading naturalists claim humans are causing a massive ''sixth extinction" of species across the planet-rivaling the five greatest extinctions of the last 500 million years-these are salient issues.

In this sense, the roiling ecological crisis of Lake Victoria is a more powerful symbol of the uncertain state of the earth than the apparently pristine, timeless Antarctica of ''March of the Penguins"-a film uninterested, incidentally, in the effect of climate change on the polar ice caps. Indeed, penguins face few threats to their existence. By contrast, as ''Darwin's Nightmare" notes, the Nile perch, having chewed through its prey, has now turned to cannibalism.

It is a potent metaphor. ''March of the Penguins" may flatter us with the suggestion that other creatures have a veneer of our civilization, but ''Darwin's Nightmare" turns the formula around. Under the surface, we're still just animals.

Peter Dizikes is a journalist living in Arlington. He frequently writes about science and technology.

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