Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Wealth of Nations

I saw a documentary called 'Dawin's Nightmare' on TV the other night. The title of the documentary is not a good one, in my opinion - but the documentary itself is excellent. It is also extremely depressing. It should be required viewing for anyone minded to mouth the usual liberal platitudes about the benefits of free trade and 'globalisation'.

It's an effective documentary because it's not explicitly didactic. What really struck me about it was the way in which the film-maker leaves you, the viewer, to piece together the evidence he presents - there's no voice-over, no ready-made narrative. The documentary invites the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions from the images and interviews in the film. This is not to say, that there is no message, of course - it's clear what the film-maker (saupert) is trying to say. But the message, or the moral, emerges gradually - you need to work on it. One of the most effective techniques that the film-maker uses is one of simple juxtaposition - film footage of EU trade reps in negotiations shown next to footage of starving children sniffing toxic fumes to relieve their hunger.

The documentary focuses on fishing communities in Tanzania. The local communities around Lake Victoria used to be able to feed themselves quite easily - fish was the staple diet of the region. Now the fishing catches are bought up by European multinationals and exported daily in huge air freighters. The local people starve. In several jarring episodes, European air-freighters fly over the heads of very poor fishermen on the lake (some of them don't even have boats - they dive for fish, risking crocodile attack and mutilation) drawing in the fish catch that will later be loaded onto similar planes and flown straight out of the country. The fishermen don't earn enough to feed themselves properly, even though they hawl in easily enough fish to feed the whole population in the surrounding area. The lunacy is compounded by footage of UN planes flying in Aid relief to the country - there would be no need for this stuff, if Tanzania wasn't already being pillaged by the West.

As the documentary proceeds, we learn that many of the Russian airplanes that fly in to collect the fish are not empty when they arrive. It appears that many are loaded with arms bound for Africa's civil wars in Angola and the Congo. Some of the airfreight managers and Russian pilots are interviewed. The managers are fucking amoral shits, completely unconcerned when confronted with the evidence of what their trade (in fish and in arms) does to Tanzania and beyond. Some of the pilots are more sympathetic. One Russian pilot seems to be wracked by guilt at what he does - sometimes he lies awake at night thinking about it: he says 'the European children get food while the African children get guns'. But what can he do - he has a family to support himself. He can't get other work.

A local man - he used to be a teacher, I think, before his impoverishment - now works as an armed guard at one of the food depots. He got the job because the previous guard was murdered by raiders. He sits in the compound every night with a bow and poison-tipped arrows waiting to kill intruders looking for food (and waiting to be killed himself). He earns a dollar a day. He tells the film-maker that the people pray for war - because war, at least, brings soldiers' salaries.

We see a number of prostitutes at a bar in one of the towns. It turns out that one of them shortly after her interview for the documentary, was murdered by an Australian pilot client. Life is cheap.

On the shores of the lake, homeless children collect the discarded packing boxes from outside the depot where the fish are loaded onto the planes. They put them on bonfires so that they can sniff the toxic fumes.

This isn't simply a local or a Tanzanian problem. As Saupert says "I could make the same kind of movie in Sierra Leone, only the fish would be diamonds, in Honduras, bananas, and in Libya, Nigeria or Angola, crude oil."

Saupert explains what he intends the documentary to show:

"Most of us I guess, know about the destructive mechanisms of our time, but we cannot fully picture them. We are unable to "get it", unable to actually believe what we know. It is, for example, incredible that wherever prime raw material is discovered, the locals die in misery, their sons become soldiers, and their daughters are turned into servants and whores. Hearing and seeing the same stories over and over makes me feel sick. After hundreds of years of slavery and colonisation of Africa, globalisation of african markets is the third and deadliest humiliation for the people of this continent. The arrogance of rich countries towards the third world (that's three quarters of humanity) is creating immeasurable future dangers for all peoples."

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