Highlighting its environmental bent from its opening forward, Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) establishes its setting and introduces its perspective by contrasting the struggles of impoverished natives with their prosperous Eastern European economic colonizers. The opening song, “Tanzania,” for example, is contrasted with Eastern European music accompanying a plane’s shadow over Lake Victoria, “the source of the Nile” and “the birthplace of civilization,” according to the film. A pan of the town reveals poverty and neglect. Dogs sleep on the sand while fishermen work on their boats. In the streets, one boy runs on crutches, and another cries when a bully punches him. Girls sing to the sound of a synthesizer while a child sleeps on the sidewalk. “They take the fish to the factory,” Marcus, a police officer, explains, and European pilots fly the prepared perch back to their homeland. With these opening shots, the film’s focus has been established—an interrogation of the dire economic and environmental consequences of introducing perch into the Lake Victoria eco-system.
Darwin’s Nightmare demonstrates how our greed for a particular type of fish—perch—has irrevocably disrupted the biosphere of Lake Victoria. Because of the changes in the fishing industry caused by the overabundance of perch and Westerners’ taste for this fish as food, human nature has also been irrevocably disrupted according to the film, demonstrating how interconnected human and nonhuman nature remain. The perch have destroyed the biotic community of the lake, with one species overwhelming all others, but the perch have also negatively affected the human community. Their destructive behaviors may ultimately destroy the fishing industry, but their introduction into the lake has already changed the industry and the market that sustains it. With huge perch available for export, countries bordering on the lake, especially Tanzania, can no longer rely on the lake for sustenance. Fishermen no longer catch fish for themselves and their families. They catch perch for a factory where they are prepared for shipment to Europe where, according to the film, two million white people eat Victoria fish each day.
Tanzanians are starving, then, because their lake has become a Darwinian nightmare marketplace for Eastern European businessmen and their pilots, who fly cargo planes into Tanzania for their load of perch. They provide nothing for the people living near the lake, but they do contribute even further to their impoverished state, since they bring arms to warring African countries leaving more than a million dead. In return, pilots from Ukraine bring perch back to Europe, while hungry and orphaned Tanzanian children sleep on the streets. Women live in brothels and bars, starve, or die from fumes exuded by smoking perch corpses. The human biotic community has disintegrated here.
The film personalizes each of these struggles: It foregrounds prostitute Eliza’s attempts to figure out her life, her glowing smile, and her powerful voice singing her country’s anthem, “Tanzania.” It also focuses on Raphael, a night guard fearing for his life, since the previous guard had been murdered, Jonathan, a painter who documents the life on the streets he left behind, the group of boys fighting to survive on the street, and the cargo pilots themselves, some even regretting their part in the arms sales that contribute to so many deaths.
Darwin’s Nightmare shows us what happens when the biotic communities of and between nonhuman and human nature are disturbed. Here the film asserts that a single species—either the Nile perch or the European colonizer—can destroy its environment and even itself. Instead of arguing for animal liberation, the film upholds the need for interdependent community. The consequences of its destruction are monumental and ultimately end in both lake and land turning into barren sinkholes. But the film stands only as a warning against disrupting other biospheres. It is too late for Lake Victoria and, perhaps, for Tanzania, the film suggests. Darwin’s Nightmare also demonstrates that arguments against over fishing based in organismic ecology may or may not encourage change.