Friday 9 October 2009

Beyond the routine badness of humanity

District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp (2009)

It is now beyond cliché to complain about the paucity of interesting mainstream films released during the summer months – as critics love to tell us, Hollywood saves its self-consciously arty films for the run-up to the Oscars, and summer is there for bored teenagers looking for cheap thrills. Which is why it has been fascinating watching those same critics wrestle with this summer’s South African-New Zealand blockbuster District 9.

Certainly this low-budget film makes entertaining viewing: managing to combine thrills and spills with a well-paced and dramatically coherent narrative. Characters are made to make difficult decisions which we can sympathise with and develop over the course of the film; a framing device of a documentary allows the story to be moved on and provide plenty of exposition without seeming forced or patronising. All of which are perfectly obvious and straightforward techniques of plot rarely deployed in most contemporary cinema.

Reaction to the film has been divided on its portrayal of the Nigerian gangsters who feed off the misery of the alien refugees. Much of the blame lies at the door of what superficially makes the film most interesting: its allegorical treatment of apartheid politics. And yes, the film does come down on the side that apartheid was bad, while at the same time portraying Nigerian characters as dehumanised and barbarous savages. Is this hypocritical, anti-human or deliberate?

As Robin Walsh suggested in his earlier review on Culture Wars, the film bears many similarities with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which used the universalist possibilities inherent in myth and fantasy to make politically specific points about historical events. But it would be wrong to treat District 9 entirely as an allegory for a country coming to terms with its past. Michael Wood observes in the London Review of Books that many of the issues are just as applicable to current attitudes towards immigration and refugees, and when the central character Wikus resorts to the language of child protection to justify invading the alien Christopher Johnson’s home – which sets in train the motion of events – Blomkamp is doing more than make a general point about bureaucracy of evil: these are deeply contemporary manifestations of petty authoritarianism.

As Sharmini Brookes has pointed out in her review on spiked, Blomkamp is not frightened to ask deeply uncomfortable questions, of which the depiction of the Nigerians is the most provocative example. Wood, for all his admiration of the film, cannot see the purpose of this flirtation with old-fashioned colonial racism. The oppressive and murderous villains of a film about apartheid are surely the quasi-statist Multi-National United, but these are ‘just bad guys’ in comparison to the cannibalistic Nigerians. ‘Why does the movie need a level of scary beyond the routine badness of humanity,’ he asks in exasperation.

What marks out District 9 as a particularly fascinating piece is that it isn’t prepared to accept the ‘badness of humanity’ as routine, in stark contrast to much contemporary film. As Nathalie Rothschild has written, 2008 was the year in which ‘humanity became the baddie’ and sci-fi films, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to (stretching the genre slightly) The Age of Stupid. But humanity itself is not bad in District 9 in any clear sense: the ‘prawns’, while physically grotesque by human standards, are uniquely humanised. They have strong familial bonds; they have a language (which is clearly understandable to Wikus); they fall prey to the same lusts, desires and aspirations as human beings. They do not possess telepathy, extra-terrestrial wisdom or endless reserves of tolerance in relation to the human beings: they have nothing more than a degree of technological superiority (which has, of course, failed them: hence their ship being stranded on earth). Moreover, while MNU are caricatured as undoubted villains, when Wikus is captured by the Nigerians and facing torture and almost certain death, we inwardly cheer when the MNU gunships come in to save our hero from these savages. When we’re faced by an absence of humanity – surely the clearest definition of ‘evil’ a secularist can conjure – we’re prepared to back ‘the bad guys.’ And the ‘pretty straight’ kinda ones too.

Blomkamp and fellow scriptwriter Terri Tatchell have here deployed a very clever trick: while using the metaphor of aliens to confront the horrors of old-style apartheid, the film encourages us to dehumanise the real-world barbarism created by poverty and a lack of developmental infrastructure. In this film, the prawns are the victimised refugees and the Nigerians the alien invaders. But the prawns start to challenge their victim status by organising and fighting back (indeed, Johnson’s pledge to return for his people, perhaps with an avenging army, is the cliffhanger at the end). More importantly, lest we forget, Nigerian gangsters and slums have an existence once we leave the cinema.

It is important to remember that District 9 is ultimately and unapologetically a piece of shameless entertainment. A reasonable criticism of the film, which Wood expresses, is that it asks too many questions and offers no answers. Blomkamp is an unknown, and the audience knows little about him. Maybe he is a racist, an imperialist or bleeding heart liberal. Perhaps the planned sequel will reveal his apparently intelligent questioning to be little more than a fluke. But a question begets an answer: and the answer lies not in the past or present, but always in the future. And the possibilities inherent in imagining the future is the world which sci-fi all too rarely inhabits, and this is an outstanding example.


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Resources

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
IMDB - does exactly what it says on the tin

BFI
British Film Institute’s Finest

BFI’s Sight and Sound
World cinema eating its heart out

They shoot pictures, don’t they?
Dedicated to the art of directing

Barbican Film
Some of the most innovative films in town

ICA Film
Independent, political and art-house gorge-fest

National Media Museum
Not nearly as bad as it sounds

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