Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9 and Science (Non)Fiction

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.


christophresh said...

I'm surprised you don't like sci-fi, because it is the most philosophical of all artistic genres (Deleuze said it was detective novels, I think). You change something about the currently existing world
- No more babies! Aliens that are like us, but different! Threat of total annihilation looming at every second! -
to ask existential questions, and questions about human nature. Or at least about human behavior (which I guess would be psychology or philosophy of mind or phenomenology), if the phrase 'human nature' frightens you.

That said, the movies can be cornball.

steventhomas said...

I really liked this movie too, and hope to teach it this semester.

And I think I get your take on weak humanism here, and am afraid of explaining why I think I get it, because of your spoiler alert -- though I really would like you just to go ahead and spoil away, because the way the movie deals with changing identities and also the way it shifts who the audience empathizes with or even identifies with seems to be the whole point.

But for me, the major, real-world resonance in the film was not the list of stuff you mentioned (bantustans, Gaza, etc.), but with refugee camps in Africa. I think the apartheid allusion is rather obvious, but also today in many African countries (including S.Africa), there are refugees from other African countries who are stuck in camps and not allowed to leave, not allowed to work, not allowed... etc., etc. These people maybe fled Zimbabwe for S. Africa, or fled Ethiopia for the Sudan (yes, I don't think Americans can imagine someone running TO Sudan, but that's because Americans don't want to know what really goes on in Africa. I met someone in Kenya who work on behalf of those refugees and regularly travels there.) And of course, these refugee camps are run by the United Nations and are considered "humanitarian relief" by do-gooders around the world, though they essentially dehumanize the people in them. While I was in Kenya, I met with a group of Oromo refugees who fled Ethiopia and who are literally not allowed by the Kenyan government to do anything or go anywhere. So, I think the film was making a statment about that as well.

Jean Claude age 19 Trinidadian kid said...

Something that I identified in the movie which was not spoken of in any of the above comments is the issue of capitalism. In keeping with the 'please-dont-spoil-the-film' tone, I would not disclose the specifics of the scene however I would say that the movie was constructed in a way that highlighted and cultivated a distaste for the commercialisation of life; the pitiful extents of capitalism was a central theme or at very least was a theme which came across forcefully.

It seemed to me no coincidence that the producer of The Lord of the Rings also produced this film because the similarity of issues within both works is striking. Lord of the Rings is centered on portraying the negatives of human curiosity, specifically our ability to make technological advances disproportionately to our moral advances while District 9 also brings into focus the usability of advanced technology by a morally lagging species (what would we do if we had those crazy guns????)

Though the movie was a satire of humanity in general (in the context of the original post it would be a satire only of "weak humanism" i think) i couldnt help but think that the movie made fun of the aliens too. I mean, looking at the conduct of most of the aliens it seemed like their worst resembled our worst.....and just like us, the aliens also had leaders who thought and behaved above the rest. Therefore both species could be laughed at.......

anotherpanacea said...

When I first read your post, I was doing so lightly, to avoid spoiling the movie. Then I wrote a post about it over at my blog and forgot to check back here to see if you had made similar points.

Now I'm struck that you weren't troubled by the same things that bothered me: the way that Blomkamp substituted black South Africans talking about Nigerians for the interviews about the aliens, or the way that he draws on some pretty broad stereotypes in portraying the Nigerians themselves.

They're basically economic refugees who are blocked from working by South African's prejudice, some of whom turn to illicit trafficking to survive, not some sort of evil primitives.

The other thing that troubled me about the film is the way the aliens really were inferior, as depicted: we're told that the alien culture has a more insect-like biological hierarchy, and that we're just meeting the drones who lack intelligence or ambition. If the goal is to tell an apartheid allegory, I can't imagine a worse, more Afrikaaner-centric narrative device.

I -do- think the film works well with your weak humanism project. What motivates us about the aliens is that they suffer and are in need of assistance, which are your very own conditions: vulnerability, suscepibility to misfortune and natural disaster, interdependence.

On the other hand, it again raises the question: why "humanism" at all?

DOCTOR J said...

AnPan, I read your excellent post on this film on your blog, and I apologize for the delay in responding to that (very good) post. On the whole, I agree with all of your insights there. I would have included many of them in my own review, but I was trying to avoid spoilers. I still really liked the film, but the first conversation I had about it upon leaving the theater with my friend was about the actual racism evident in the depictions of the Nigerian warlords. (Cannibalism? Voodoo? Really? Sigh.) It’s obviously not a perfect film, but it’s a good film, I think.

I wanted to remark on your comment about Blomkamp’s special variety of revisionist South African history (or, at least, highly edited history). As it turns out, Blomkamp is only 29 years old, meaning he was only about 10 years old when apartheid ended, and his famnily relocated to Vancouver when he was 18. So, he neither had much experience of “actual” apartheid in SA nor did he really experience post-apartheid SA. There’s a lot of literature out there on South Africa’s younger generation and how distant they are in their political consciousness from SA’s history of apartheid. I think the hit-or-miss nature of his film’s apartheid allegory is characteristic of his generation. That’s not an apology, just an observation. It might also explain the carelessness with which he depicted black South Africans in District 9. He clearly has a strong sense of the collective guilt that most contemporary Afrikaaners bear, but it’s a guilt that is kind of generic, a bit misinformed, not very nuanced. In a lot of ways, I think it resembles the kind of post-racism attitude you see in Southern whites born after, say, 1970. They (we) accept, unreflectively, that racism is a “bad” thing, but still don’t have a comprehensive grasp of the complex phenomenology of non-legal racism.

So, what I liked about the film really had to do more with the analogy between racism and speciesism, and the way in which Blomkamp problematized the question of “the human.” I liked it because it upset the intuition (that a lot of people have) that “racism” is a natural and inevitable consequence of different human groups coming into contact with one another. Blomkamp’s film shows, I think, that the problem is not human differences– which can be oversome, as was ostensibly the case with the downfall of apartheid– but rather the problem is a certain attitude toward and about “difference” that can be remolded and activated against whomever or whatever comes to occupy the place of the “Other.”