While effectively evoking this bleak backwater, the film simultaneously explores reports that the cargo planes that fly in to pick up the fish arrive not empty, as local notables maintain, but filled with weapons for use in Africa’s endless civil wars. After various tantalizing clues are offered up, a Russian pilot finally confesses on camera that, on his flights down to Africa, he does indeed bring weapons with him, offloading them in Angola before traveling on to Johannesburg to pick up grapes for the return trip to Europe. So, the pilot says in his broken English, “the childrens of Angola received guns for Christmas, and European children receives grapes.” Explosive and wrenching, the revelation seems the final brilliant stroke in a piercing parable about the cruel logic of global capitalism.
Yet, as I watched, the old feelings of irritation and befuddlement began to rise. Darwin’s Nightmare uses no narrator, just the occasional intertitle to impart some shards of information, and the results are often confounding. At one point, for instance, the film shows some grainy clips of an ecological conference in Kenya where some platitudes are uttered about the quality of the lake’s fish, but these pass by so quickly that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. In describing the perch trade, the film shows the plant where the fish are packaged, but we’re never told how much the workers make or what broader benefits the plant may have produced for the community. The discussion of the arms-for-fish pipeline seems especially muddled. In his determination to avoid narration, Sauper at one point has a night watchman at a fish research institute read a few lines from an investigative article in a regional newspaper. The journalist who wrote the piece is interviewed, but in so fleeting a fashion that we can’t tell how he arrived at his conclusions. What’s more, the climactic admission from the Russian pilot seems to diverge from the one offered by the journalist—a variance that the film makes no effort to address.
None of this mattered to the reviewers. Most raved, with several singling out Sauper’s filmmaking techniques for praise. “Rather than use voice-over or talking-head expert interviews,” A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “he allows the dimensions of the story to emerge through one-on-one conversation and acutely observed visual detail.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote approvingly of Sauper’s “willingness to avoid hectoring voice-overs and simply talk quietly with his subjects.” And, in The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday noted that Sauper “takes his time building his case, never inserting his own editorial voice but letting the Tanzanians, and occasionally a representative of the World Bank or European Union or United Nations or some other interchangeable part of Ineffective and Cynical Bureaucracy Writ Large, tell their own story.” This is preposterous—Sauper’s “editorial voice” informs every frame of his film. It’s just not overt. (This suggests another common problem with narrator-less films; while pretending to have no point of view, they often have a very strong one.)
For all its shortcomings, Darwin’s Nightmare remains an impressive and haunting film, one fully deserving of Oscar consideration. Had it offered less art and more information, however, it might have actually won.
The roots of the bias against narration run deep. They can be traced back to the 1950s and the rise of cinéma vérité. At that time, some French filmmakers began using small cameras and unobtrusive sound equipment to record natural action and authentic dialogue—part of an effort to get at the true nature of reality. Narration and voice-over were shunned as disrupting the sense of intimacy and authenticity they were trying to achieve. In the 1960s and early 1970s, this approach was adopted in America by such pioneers as Frederick Wiseman, who in Titicut Follies exposed the horrendous living conditions in a hospital for the “criminally insane,” and Albert and David Maysles, who in Grey Gardens recorded the eccentric routine of two elderly women living in a dilapidated twenty-eight-room mansion in East Hampton.