I went with a friend to see the new sci-fi film District 9 last night, despite the fact that, as a rule, I'm not a huge fan of science fiction. It was a great film. It was produced by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame), and South African writer/director, Niell Blomkamp, makes his first depature from the short-film format with this venture. (District 9 is actually an adaptation of Blomkamp's short-film "Alive in Jo'burg".) The story of District 9 is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, a city that (in the film) was "invaded" by aliens twenty-eight years ago when their spaceship stalled in the air over the city. A fictional (but oh-so-close-to-reality) security corporation, Multi-National United (MNU), quarantines all of the stranded aliens in a Jo'burg ghetto ("District 9"), where their existence and their treatment slowly deteriorates to the level of, well, that of the residents of former South African bantustans. There are obviously a lot of political undertones to this film, but it is absolutely impossible not to see it as a commentary on apartheid. Blomkamp does an amazing job of subtlely calling forth all of the bureaucratic insidiousness of South Africa's former apartheid state, right down to the constant harrassment of the aliens about "permits." (South African Blacks were required to show dompas or "passes" almost constantly as a way of keeping the bantustans under constant surveillance and control.) Unfortunately, there are too many contemporary analogies that can be drawn with "District 9"-- Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Gaza and the West Bank, immigrant detention centers here in the U.S.-- all of which serve to demonstrate our tragic inadequacies when it comes to co-existing with the "Other."
It's difficult to talk too much about the film without revealing spoilers, so I'll try to refrain. However, the problems with a certain kind of group identity-formation-- and, in this case, a certain kind of (bad) humanism-- really struck me, especially in light of recent discussions on this blog and elsewhere (and even elsewhere) about the merits and demerits of humanism. The variety of humanism represented in the film, and epitomized in the image above from the film, is definitely of the circle-our-wagons-in-the-presence-of-perceived-threat ilk, and I hope it is clear from the discussions so far that this is NOT the kind of humanism that I am advocating. When we see this mindset exhibited within human groups, we call it racism or sexism. When we see it exhibited toward non-human animals or the natural environment, we call it anthropocentrism. But the funny thing about science fiction is that it can pose the question of the tout autre in a radical way-- the metonym and metaphor of the "alien" is taken literally-- and maybe this is the best way to test "humanism," even if only imaginatively.