PARIS — At the 1997 premiere of Hubert Sauper’s documentary “Kisangani Dairy” — a haunting portrayal of Rwandan refugees stranded in the Congo — celebrated French ethnologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch gave a rousing speech, declaring of the pic, “A new type of cinema was born, a cinema of contact.”
It was a moment the Austrian-born Sauper well remembers. “What he (Rouch) meant was that I as a documentary maker had established a link between myself and my subjects,” Sauper says. “It was only when he said that did I really understand what I was trying to do, which was to get as close (to people) as possible.”
Rouch, who died in a car accident in Niger last year, no doubt would have appreciated Sauper’s new doc, “Darwin’s Nightmare,” which explores the catastrophic chain of events caused by fishing the Nile perch in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria. The predatory fish, introduced to the lake in the ’60s, has all but overrun its habitat, wiping out the native species. After the fish is caught and filleted, it is flown to the West, where it is sold in European supermarkets. Meanwhile, starving Tanzanian families who cannot afford the high-priced fillets have to make do with the leftovers.
Pic has had an extraordinary effect in France, Sauper’s base for the last decade. Not only has it sold almost 300,000 tickets, but in some areas of the southwest, particularly around Bordeaux, outraged citizens have succeeded in having Nile perch pulled from supermarket shelves.
Sauper is clearly frustrated by the situation, as he does not want to endanger the livelihood of the already impoverished Tanazanian fishermen, many of whom became his friends.
“What about if I make a film about people who are exploited for growing bananas or about drilling for oil?” he asks. “Does that mean we’re going to stop people eating bananas or driving their cars? I don’t think so.”
A far better course of action, he suggests, would be to sign a petition persuading Western countries to stop selling guns to African countries: The clinching moment in “Darwin’s Nightmare” is when a Russian pilot admits to Sauper that the planes used to fly fish out of Tanzania and return to Africa carrying tanks and arms from the West.
Sauper, who spent about four years making “Darwin’s Nightmare,” editing down 200 hours of digital footage into the 107-minute docu, has been overwhelmed by the response. “Hopefully the film will eventually have some kind of political impact, but I think if it does it will be indirect, and will come about from the pressure of public opinion changing the way politicians think,” says the 38-year-old documaker.
Pic has been a big success in countries including Belgium and Austria, due mainly to excellent word of mouth. Buzz began to build last year when pic snagged top documentary prizes at Venice, Montreal and other fests, and won the award for European documentary at the European Film Awards. This March, French distributor Ad Vitam began by rolling out the pic on three screens in Paris and 25 in the rest of France.
Ad Vitam director of marketing Arthur Hallereau says the pic now is booked on 68 French screens until the end of July. Foreign sales outfit Celluloid Dreams is trying to drum up interest for a U.S. release.
Pic was produced by France’s 1001 Prods., Austria’s Coop99 Film Producktion and Saga Films in Belgium. Producer Edouard Mauriat says 1001 Prods. decided to come on board after watching “Kisangani Diary” and being impressed by “Sauper’s willingness to go to the kind of places filmmakers usually avoid.”