In the centerpiece scene of George Romero's horror classic Dawn Of The Dead, a man plays racquetball on the roof of his self-created, hermetically sealed consumer fortress, and when he accidentally drops a ball down to the street, it bounces at the feet of the hungry zombies listlessly pounding at his door. That single shock cut illustrates the ramifications of social inequity about as well as any prose essay, though Hubert Sauper's documentary Darwin's Nightmare gives it some competition. Darwin's Nightmare is ostensibly about the Tanzanian fish-processing industry, which relies on the wholesale netting, stripping, and shipping of non-indigenous Nile perch (introduced into Lake Victoria by European colonists at the turn of the century). The people who catch and clean the fish can't afford to buy them, though Sauper catches them combing the dumps around the fish factories for maggoty scrapslike the walking dead, patiently biding their time.
The concept of starving hordes servicing wealthy nations drives a lot of recent agitprop documentaries and magazine articles, but Sauper creates a more soul-shattering context, starting with a series of elliptical opening scenes. He shows an air-traffic controller swatting at bees, a shantytown dotted with giant inflatable Coke bottles, and a fish cart barreling unattended down a dusty hill. Later, he takes a more conventional documentary approach, cutting between harrowing visions of squalor and tongue-clucking interviews with ineffectual priests, jaded urchins, and oblivious businessmen. Some of this material might work better in print, if only because pictures of dying people can't help but be exploitative, no matter how well-intentioned. But only a movie could catch the irony and horror of an office manager proudly showing off his Billy Bass while local children beat each other senseless over handfuls of rancid rice.
Darwin's Nightmare would be just another "ain't it a shame" piece were it not for the way Sauper gradually reveals how all this human misery might play out. He opens the movie with a shot of a plane cruising in over the Indian Ocean, and returns repeatedly to the pilots, who haul away crates of fish and come back with tiny boxes of foreign aid and big boxes of armaments. In their off hours, the pilots cavort with prostitutes, many of whom turned to the streets when their husbands died of AIDS. Sauper ends the movie with a shot of a plane taking off in the distance while the face of a diseased prostitute fills the left half of the screen. It's a subtle but scary image, pointing toward a possible future: That the destitute multitudes, bearing guns and pestilence, will one day storm the mall.