HERE'S A DARK and frightening riddle: What do Russian cargo pilots, African wars, Tanzanian prostitutes and Nile perch have in common? Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper connects the dots between these elements and more in his 2004 documentary, "Darwin's Nightmare" (see review on Page 42), in which voracious, invasive fish threaten the survival of some of the world's poorest people around Africa's largest lake. In this global survival-of-the-fittest scenario, pilots ferry weapons to warring factions in Africa before collecting fish from Lake Victoria to sell in Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, the perch -- introduced to the lake decades ago -- devour the lake's native species, and the local human population starves, too poor to buy the white fillets packaged for export, too powerless to fight the international fishing trade taking over the lake's shores.
By phone from Paris, Sauper discussed the long and often arduous process of bringing "Darwin's Nightmare" to the screen, as well as his sense of mission in exposing stories such as these. His other films include 2001's "Alone With Our Stories," about domestic violence in France, and 1997's "Kisangani Diary" chronicling Rwandan refugees caught in the Congolese uprising.
In his latest film, Nile perch become a metaphor for the effects of globalization. "It's not a film about Lake Victoria, about fish or airplanes, [or] about Africa," he says. "It's a repetitive issue. It's a defrichage [an opening] of a certain logic." He adds that his films are "about our time, our lives, and how to represent it. Using the art and poetry of cinema to talk about the unspeakable, to express the unexpressable."
Sauper first got wind of the connection between the perch and arms trade more than seven years ago while researching "Kisangani Diary" and subsequently spent four years researching and filming "Darwin's Nightmare." He says, "I made one film about refugees in the Congo, and I met some Russian cargo pilots flying humanitarian aid. I spent a lot of time with them, and as time went on they told me things." Things like: One Christmas, a pilot flew tanks to Angola before picking up grapes from South Africa to take back to Europe. Getting people like this to talk, Sauper says, was a matter of gaining their trust but also like "training a white lion to not eat people. . . . I told them what I was working on. They knew what I was doing."
Though the connection between arms and fish had previously been reported on in the media, Sauper's film shows the many threads of the story through the eyes and words of the people living it: Russian pilots, a security guard named Raphael, a doomed prostitute named Eliza. "It tells so many different stories: arms traffic, HIV, poverty, prostitution," he says.
But Sauper doesn't advocate any one solution to these problems: "I don't want to be the traveling prophet and tell them [audiences] what to do. That's not my job. I want to provoke people, make them ask themselves questions. I'm not going to write a political program." But does he think consumers should boycott Nile perch? "I don't think it's a good idea because you boycott an entire region," he replies.
Sauper considers himself more artist than journalist, asking more questions than he answers. For instance, "in my film about the Congolese war, I can say, 'I have no idea what's going on.' I'm trying to transpose the spectator into that different situation. You learn how to see things that you know in a different way."
He was able to shoot "Darwin's Nightmare" with the luxury of time and money, he says. "I have a lot of funding from governments and many TV stations in Europe," including, he notes, "some governments that get severely criticized in my film." Sauper adds, "It took me four years to make this. I have this time, and I get a very different outcome, a very different experience" from that of a journalist or a scholar.
Nevertheless, Sauper and his collaborators Sandor Rieder and Nick Flynn consistently ran into roadblocks. "It was not the first time I made a film in Africa," Sauper says. "I knew this was part of the deal. If you ask for permits from the government, they might take you out and shoot you, or they just tell you to leave the office. There's no way to do it in an official way." Among the problems: "We did get arrested. Getting arrested in Africa, it's almost like a game. You spend two days in a stupid room, then you say you're going to call the embassy, and they let you go."
But dangers lurked elsewhere: "The threat was to lose the tapes, lose the work. . . . A few times I was afraid of flying in these airplanes because they're really old. And you can die really easily of malaria, of some stupid disease."
With "Darwin's Nightmare" opening in Washington, he issues an invitation to those he would most like to see his film: "I want to invite Bush and Rumsfeld, Cheney, the whole clan. They're all welcome."
"Darwin's Nightmare" is at Landmark's E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW. Tickets are $6.75 and $9.50. Call 202-452-7672.
'The River' in Baltimore
Jean Renoir's visually lush 1951 film, shot in color along the Ganges River in Bengal, was based on author Rumer Godden's novel set in the period after World War II but before India's independence. "The River" is the coming-of-age tale of Harriet, a 14-year-old British girl, who falls for a wounded American soldier when he comes to visit a cousin in India. Two other girls become Harriet's rivals for the soldier's affections.
Renoir, most often known for his films "The Grand Illusion" (1937) and "The Rules of the Game" (1939), infused the simple storyline with musings on the cycle of life (embodied by the great river) and a scenic lushness that one might expect from a son of impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir).
Last year, Criterion restored the original Technicolor negatives, and audiences first saw the new print at Cannes last year as part of the new Cannes Classics series. Watch it on the big screen at the Charles Theatre on Saturday at noon, Monday at 7 and Thursday at 9. The theater is at 1711 N. Charles St., Baltimore. Saturday's show is $6; Monday and Thursday shows are $8. Call 410-727-3456.
'What Makes Sammy Run?'
"What Makes Sammy Run?" explores a far different world: Hollywood. The popular 1941 novel by Budd Schulberg skewered Hollywood's backroom dealings, and in 1959, NBC broadcast a two-hour adaptation of the book on "Sunday Showcase." Somewhere down the line, NBC lost the second half of the program, but last year the Library of Congress scoured its archives and discovered the second reel. In conjunction with the Washington Jewish Film Festival, the library will screen both halves of the Sammy Glick story Tuesday at 7 in the Mary Pickford Theater at the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE. Tickets are free, but reservations are required; call 202-707-5677.
-- Christina Talcott