Darwin’s Nightmare begins and ends with a plane. Large and Russian, it lands and takes off at the desolate airport in Mwanza, a city in northwest Tanzania. It’s here that the Nile perch, which destroyed every other species in nearby Lake Victoria but became a delicacy throughout Europe, is processed and exported. Worldwide demand makes the fish too expensive for the impoverished Tanzanians to enjoy themselves. Instead, they settle for the perches’ discarded heads, which prior to cooking lie in dirt and maggots.
In other words: The plane is us, capitalist rapists all. Though Americans aren’t directly indicted in Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper’s latest documentary, its portrayal of an unbalanced global economy arguably puts all First World nations in the hot seat. Snakehead-plagued Washingtonians might feel some kinship for the Tanzanians, but that doesn’t exempt them. Yes, the predatory perch is a biological oops, released into Lake Victoria 40 years ago as part of a science experiment. But its impact extends to much more than game fish and tourist dollars.
Sauper and his crew often had to use false identities and create ruses to explain their presence in this part of Africa’s Great Lakes region, but the director still managed to capture stark images and wangle interviews with both the locals and the factory owners and pilots involved in the export trade. Initially—and sadly—the film is hardly shocking, offering scenes of shantytowns and malnourishment to which television has inured well-fed Westerners. But Sauper isn’t Sally Struthers; for the most part, he coolly delves into the economic and sociological events that have resulted in people starving in an area where thousands of tons of edible fish are harvested every year.
Always offscreen, the filmmaker talks to residents such as Eliza, a pretty young woman who, like her peers, felt forced into prostituting herself to pilots to survive. Or Raphael, a man who took a job guarding a processing plant at night—armed with poisoned arrows and paid $1 a shift—after the previous guard was murdered. Raphael speaks frankly about how locals need to take whatever jobs they can get, no matter how horrible, and about how he wishes for war because it would mean plenty of work. One ongoing opportunity Tanzanian men have, of course, is to fish—but that’s mainly because so many of their countrymen die in the process.
After witnessing the daily arrival of foreign planes ready to be filled with up to 500 tons of perch, Sauper begins questioning what, if anything, the exporters fly in with. One cargo manager claims he doesn’t know, that it’s none of his business. Another calls it “humanitarian cargo.” The truth, which Sauper sporadically succeeds in dragging out of his reluctant subjects, is that the planes are often loaded with illegal arms to supply warring African nations.
Darwin’s Nightmare succeeds in connecting both emotionally and intellectually, but it’s not without flaws. You may be puzzled at the film’s beginning, for instance, when Sauper jumps from the facts of the Nile perch’s invasion to scenes of boys running, crying, and punching each other on the streets—not the only instance in which the narrative veers chaotically between points. Sauper isn’t above gimmickry, either. At one point, he ludicrously has a factory owner sit in a boardroom with a newspaper after the exec has turned on one of those damn singing bass that play “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Most problematic of all is Sauper’s condescending tone during a couple of the interviews, such as when he talks to a proud Tanzanian father about his son who wants to become a pilot. The director forces him to imagine the kid flying an export plane, then asks, as if to a child, what things that plane might bring Tanzanians from those rich, magical-sounding European countries. Darwin’s Nightmare tells us enough about well-fed Westerners’ dehumanization of poor Africans without the director’s indulging in it, too.
Don’t bother with the nonsensical Romeo and Juliet–ish plot of In the Mix, which, incredibly, took three relatively or totally green writers (Chanel Capra, Cara Dellaverson, and Brian Rubenstein) to conceive and one television scripter (Jacqueline Zambrano) to flesh out. All you need to know about the movie can be gleaned from its one-sheet, on which the tag line “Everyone wants a piece of his action” floats above an image of Usher Raymond dressed in a fly suit. He’s being pawed at by four different female hands—as well as an apparently pissed-off male one—because when you’re this hot, there’s gonna be some controversy.
In the Mix was directed by Ron Underwood, whose last major project was The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Key elements of the movie include a flatulent bulldog, a “Daddy”-cooing princess, Italian-Americans who are all in the Mafia, a smartass little girl, and a white kid who acts black. If you must know the story, it centers on Ush—I mean, Darrell, who’s a successful New York DJ. He’s also tight—in a totally wholesome way—with the local mobsters, for whom his dad used to bartend. Frank (Chazz Palminteri), the boss, asks Darrell to spin at an extravagant homecoming party for daughter Dolly (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who’s been away at law school. Dolly arrives, everyone cheers, and though she’s all gooey for her dad—“I love you.” “I love you more!”—she’s also happy to see old pal Darrell.
With everyone vomiting over himself to celebrate Dolly, the scene is already pretty awful. But it only gets worse when a drive-by happens—and Darrell launches himself to take a bullet for Frank. The family insists that he stay with them while he recovers. Later, Frank stops Dolly before she goes out for a day of princessing to insist that she have a bodyguard. She refuses to be tailed by one of his more unseemly thugs, but Frank then extends the options to “anyone in this house,” so she picks Darrell.
Issues such as continuity aren’t important here: After Frank agrees to let Darrell protect Dolly, she goes back inside, and suddenly her yoga class and lunch date are actually for tomorrow. And forget about political correctness: Alla da mobstas talka like dis, and Frank’s elderly tailor doesn’t try to hide his racism when asked to outfit Darrell with a couple of suits. And, hell, let’s throw logic in the to-be-ignored pile, as well, with Frank showing more love for Darrell than for his own blinged-out son (Anthony Fazio), then freaking out Godfather-style when he finds out that Darrell and Dolly have begun a romance.
What the filmmakers do deem critical, however, is gushing over the Ush. When Darrell is DJing, women at the club throw themselves at him—OK. When Darrell goes dancing with Dolly (preceded by, if reality and fiction are to be intertwined, his ridiculous insistence that he has no moves), the eyes of every woman in the place are on him—maybe. But when Darrell hangs back as Dolly has lunch with the girls and they not only purringly invite him to join them but also immediately ask him for dating advice—well, that’s just weird, even if he is the hottest guy in the room.
To be fair, Usher is serviceable in his first starring role, and his ingratiating baby face could make him an appealing leading man if he were to find the right script. And Chriqui is as good a token dream girl as any to throw around such lines as “You do not control me!” There are some funny moments in the movie, too, whether intentional (mostly courtesy of comedian Kevin Hart, who plays Darrell’s best friend) or not (such as when Frank asks one of his goons how he thinks Dolly’s been acting lately and the guy says, “Different—like she’s in love or something!”). But still. If one of Darrell’s comments after receiving a compliment on his spinning is to be taken seriously—“That’s what happens when you love what you do. It turns out right!”—then all those involved with In the Mix must really hate their jobs.CP