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Custodians Of The Land:
Ecology & Culture In History Of Tanzania

. "Darwin's Nightmare"

This documentary attempts to tie modern day commerce between Europe and a fishing community in Tanzania to the father-theorist of evolution. It's a stretch, though it does involve the introduction of a predator fish into Mwanza's Lake Victoria only to have it consume all other species of fish. That's not evolution, but what it does to an impoverished community that depends on fishing for subsistence is. And, it's not exactly a tragedy. The Nile Perch, it turns out, grow to large sizes and open up a market for export.

The advantages of a new commercial resource go to the factories that process the fish for export and to their employees--not as much to the overall community that remains poor and unaided by government. The fish carcasses that remain after the filets have been cut away becomes a food source and a side benefit for local entrepreneurs. The picture of this in a community ravaged by AIDS and HIV is only part of a society peopled by prostitutes who have lost their husbands to the disease and orphaned children who wile away a night in an alley by sniffing glue.

Meanwhile, cargo planes arrive loaded with arms and ammunition and leave with 500 tons of fish. An efficient commercial turnaround for the shipping firm owners. Filmmaker Hubert Sauper, an Austro-Parisian, trains his camera at lenght on the Russian pilots, the factory owners, townspeople and fishermen, a voluble security man, and others. He lets the camera roll freely, one thinks in an attempt to make the case for the ironies of their existence but in a rambling, unfocused style that collectively leaves room for interpretation: hopelessness and despair mixed in with opportunity and resourcefulness.

The story that emerges is not unfamiliar: the fittest who not only survive but fluorish, are commercial interests taking advantage of a resource or market, and the working class that takes advantage of jobs they create. This African version of that story occurs in an ecology of great natural beauty and little sociological concern. But, the irony of guns for fish isn't Darwin's nightmare, it's Tanzania's opportunity to improve conditions. Or, isn't that what the filmmaker had in mind?

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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