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Tanzanian Nightmare 

Flick Chick

Published December 13, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

It's all about the delicate balance. Every living thing, plus many an inanimate object, has a place and a purpose. As witnessed in Darwin's Nightmare, the disruption of any one entity can spark a chain of unforeseen events that threatens entire societies. The unflinching documentary, on tap this weekend at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, demonstrates that survival of the fittest is not a pretty sight.

Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper's exposé reveals Hell on Earth - otherwise known as Mwanza, a town on the shores of Lake Victoria in northern Tanzania. Applying an almost cinema-verité visual style to investigative journalism, he unveils the destruction of both an ecosystem and an ancient human culture.

The trouble began when a few Nile perch were tossed into those African waters as an experiment during the 1960s. The gigantic fish reproduced at an alarming rate, and all the native species began to disappear.

Meanwhile, families that once depended on the lake's diverse bounty found their lives turned upside down. The Nile perch, much prized by gourmands in Europe and Japan, have become the region's major export. The film shows poorly paid workers processing and packing the fish at a plant, where a mechanical singing bass on the manager's office wall belts out "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

Globalization exacts a terrible toll in Mwanza. Huge Soviet-made cargo planes land at the town's tiny airstrip to carry away the expensive filets that no locals could possibly afford. Instead, they dine on the outdoor pile of discarded fish heads crawling with maggots.

Lured by the relatively good wages of the fishing industry, farmers give up their ravaged land and move to squalid migrant camps on the outskirts of town. There, they court death by having sex with destitute widows who were forced into prostitution when their husbands succumbed to what everyone calls "the virus." The AIDS epidemic does not deter a priest from telling his congregation to forego condoms because "sex is a sin."

Orphans sleep in the streets. They sniff the fumes of melted-down plastic fish packaging to temporarily mask their hunger and fight for scraps of food.

And did I mention that those who eke out a living on Lake Victoria also must contend with ravenous crocodiles, the only creature impervious to Nile perch?

As he wades through so much manmade misery, Sauper's overarching quest is to discover what those gigantic aircraft are bringing back on the return trip. He asks this question of many people, including the Russian and Ukrainian pilots. When the answer finally comes, it's a shock but not a surprise: weapons for the continent's bloody civil conflicts.

A night watchman, armed only with a bow and a few poison-tipped arrows, has been guarding the National Fish Institute ever since his predecessor was killed on the job. A war in Tanzania would be good for him, he acknowledges, because soldiers earn more than civilians.

A visiting European Union delegation somehow manages to ignore the myriad horrors. They pronounce the infrastructure "in good shape," despite a drought that puts 2 million Tanzanians in danger of starvation. Even without famine, half of the country's 34 million inhabitants subsist on less than $1 a day. Don't worry. Be happy.

Darwin's Nightmare, screening Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m., is the last selection in the Can't Wait 'til March Series, heralding winter 2007's Green Mountain Film Festival.


Mark your calendars: Bridge to Terabithia, adapted from the 1978 Newbery Award-winning children's book by Katherine Paterson of Barre, opens nationwide on February 16. The Walt Disney Pictures release is not likely to raise as much of a ruckus as the printed page has over the years.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Vermont author's tome ranked ninth on the American Library Association's list of 100 most frequently challenged books. Paragons of virtue objected to Terabithia's supposedly anti-Christian story about two fifth-graders who create an imaginary kingdom populated by magical beings in the woods.

"The controversy was so out of whack," suggests Paterson, who trained as a missionary and is married to a Presbyterian pastor. "There are some people that don't know how to read a novel."

More recently, British wizards and other literary flights of fancy may have distracted those self-appointed censors. "Good for Harry Potter," says Paterson. "I'm grateful to him."


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Susan Green


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