17 August 2009

District 9

District 9 gave me qualms. And then my qualms got qualms. So now I'm all qualmed up.

Because more than being a well-made action movie, more than being a sometimes clever and often allusive sci-fi summer blockbuster, District 9 is also a South African movie about aliens, a movie with more than a hint of metaphorical intent. Andrew O'Hehir's piece about the film and its director, Neill Blomkamp, is even titled, "Is apartheid acceptable -- for giant bugs?"

My first set of qualms began when I tried to view the movie within the context of South Africa's apartheid history, but it didn't work. The premise isn't about a native ethnic majority that is segregated and oppressed by an ethnic minority of more recent arrival. The premise is about refugees -- and, this being a sci-fi movie, the non-native aliens are really non-native and really aliens.

Thus, the District 9 of the title is a slum full of refugees (obviously, there are some echoes of District 6, but again the apartheid connection is problematic). In the O'Hehir piece, there is this exchange:

[Q:] There's a very dark comic side to this story, in which blacks and whites come together to treat another group worse than blacks were ever treated under apartheid.

[Blomkamp:] I was pretty aware of that. I thought that was a pretty funny concept. Another part of recent South African history that isn't world news is that the collapse of Zimbabwe has introduced millions of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants into South African cities. So you have impoverished South African blacks, hoping for a better life in their own country, faced with an influx of millions of impoverished Zimbabweans who have come to South Africa to build a new life for their families. Now you have this powder-keg situation, with black against black, which is highly bizarre.

When we started filming the movie, we had this terrible situation where we woke up one morning to find out that Johannesburg was eating itself alive. Impoverished South Africans had started murdering impoverished Zimbabweans, necklacing them and burning them and chopping them up. That's a very serious piece of contemporary South African society that also finds its way into the film: some impoverished citizens wanting other impoverished citizens out.

Blomkamp's choices of words here are odd -- blacks and whites together oppressing aliens who look like giant insects is a "pretty funny concept" (hey, let's end racial strife -- give us an enemy we can all agree is repulsive! It'll be a laugh riot!) and violence between people who come from different places and are impoverished is "highly bizarre" (only if you think "black people" is a monolithic category -- violence between people who have been systematically forced to scrounge for a living amidst awful conditions is, alas, historically the opposite of bizarre, and the forces that encourage and benefit from it can generally be pretty well defined and analyzed). The important point, though, is the connection to the politics and sociology of refugee situations rather than, primarily, to apartheid.

It's possible to see District 9 as a purely science fictional story: What if aliens landed in Johannesburg and weren't able to leave? Blomkamp said that's, in fact, where he began--
I wanted to see science fiction in that city. I mean, I lived there, and you don't come across cities like that much, especially not in the First World. They don't exist.

So that was the primary reason for making "District 9." No allegories, no metaphors, nothing. Just science fiction in Joburg.
The problem is that there is no such thing as "just science fiction" when the story includes such resonant imagery as that of slums -- in a media environment where images of slums are, for many audiences, racialized and politicized, creating a story about aliens in slums will explode with meanings beyond the immediate narrative.

What we have in District 9 is a story about beings who are (according to the information we are given) monomorphic, monocultural, monolinguistic, physically repulsive to most humans, grotesque in their habits, barbaric in their behaviors, and mostly quite stupid.

In other words, every xenophobe's and racist's worst caricature of a refugee or immigrant.

It could be that this is part of the point. The humans who have jurisdiction over the aliens are shown to be mostly violent, scheming, greedy, ruthless, and contemptible. They are, themselves, mostly quite stupid and barbaric in their behaviors. They are not, though, grotesque in their habits, physically repulsive to most other humans, monolinguistic, monocultural, or monomorphic. (Or at least not so to us, a human audience.)

I had qualms about this, but as I thought about them, my qualms got qualms. At first, I was thinking about the excellent post by Mely from last year concerning metaphorical/allegorical uses of race -- uses which horrendously simplify the idea of race in a biologically deterministic way and which have the unfortunate effect of positing that people who are not members of whatever hegemony is in question are, actually, just like a different species. Mely wrote: "As in nonmetaphorical racial stereotyping, whiteness is treated as the human default and differences from whiteness are treated as aberrations, flaws, signs of violence, inhumanity, lack of control, and threateningness."

That, though, is not what's going on in District 9, exactly, though I was tempted for a few moments to believe it was. The key thing to consider is how the film manipulates our sympathies.

It's an action movie, remember. We need at least one good guy to sympathize with and care about so that we can ignore any concerns about enjoying the ghastly havoc any such film is rich with. How such a film creates and sustains sympathy for a character or group of characters and creates and sustains antipathy for other characters is vitally important.

In the first ten or twenty minutes of District 9, it's hard to figure out where our sympathies belong. The humans are doing things that remind of us Stuff We Know Is Wrong, but the aliens are really gross. We might even begin to wonder if, heck, maybe what the humans are doing isn't even totally unjustified...

Soon enough, we realize that the nebbish and not-very-self-aware Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) is our hero. It's nearly impossible to sympathize with him at first -- he's pathetic.

[Pause to let folks who haven't seen the film know that I'm now going to reveal some of the major plot elements.]

But then comes the black fluid. (Yes, black.) It causes Wikus to turn into one of Them and forces him to fight against nearly every human in the film.

The more humans Wikus kills, the more we root for him.

Our sympathies are also manipulated through the character of Christopher Johnson and his son (and I love that the humans are so uninterested in trying to pronounce the aliens' names that they just use ordinary English ones for them -- it's worth noting that for most of an American or British audience, at least, a name like Wikus van der Merwe is more alien-sounding than Christopher Johnson). At first, they are repulsive and threatening and very alien -- Wikus makes the mistake of thinking the son is cute and ends up getting a tin can thrown at his head -- but soon enough they seem as cuddly as E.T.

The film then becomes a buddy picture -- the human/alien hybrid Wikus teamed with the aliens Christopher and his son against every human they encounter.

We move from a reluctant sympathy with unsympathetic humans who, at least, are human ... to a sympathy with a man who is becoming ever more alien and his alien companions. We root for them to succeed in returning to the ship and in getting it operational so they can get the hell away from this crazy, threatening planet -- our planet. When a gang of aliens show up toward the end of the film to fight against the corporate soldiers, we root for the aliens. We laugh and cheer when the soldiers are bloodily obliterated with the aliens' awesome weapons.

Creatures that had seemed stupid and barbaric now seem more complex than we gave them credit for being. We don't know everything about them -- we know, in fact, hardly anything at all -- but we do know that we underestimated them, and that what we took for understanding was anything but.

The final image is, in such a reading, haunting and powerful -- it represents the full journey of our sympathies and the ache within sentient beings for connection.

What was previously alien is now a source of comfort and safety; what was comforting and safe is now threatening and alien.

Being a man of qualms, I still have a few. The Nigerian gang in the slum is the biggest source of qualms for me -- Blomkamp justifies them by saying that Nigerian gangs in Johannesburg are at the center of much of the drug and prostitution traffic, but that ignores the issue here, which is not that there are no gangs of violent black people doing awful stuff in reality, but that images of such people in pieces of mass entertainment deserve a lot of careful thought. When pictures of Barack Obama as a "witch doctor" are circulated by anti-health care reform activists, it may not be the greatest thing in the world for a popular movie to have scenes focused on stereotypically savage black guys who are specifically said to be believers in muti and who think that eating parts of the aliens will give them power. Maybe it would be good to, you know, think about such representations a little bit more before employing them....

On the whole, though, my qualms have settled into admiration of District 9, at least for today.