Saturday, August 29, 2009

District 9 and why I liked it

Some of the write-ups have indicated that District 9 is, in an underlying kind of way, about apartheid. And I suppose, yes, shunting people off into sealed areas and treating them like animals is a little bit of what apartheid was about. But having just seen the movie, I think that is an extremely facile interpretation.

A spaceship hovers above Johannesburg. After a while, when the initial fascination wears off, the authorities decide the vessel should be boarded. What they discover there is hundreds of malnourished aliens, which look a little like Parktown Prawns (aka Libanisidus Vittatus) - on speed.

Now for those who don’t know these creatures (Parktown Prawns) – if you have lived in certain areas of Johannesburg, where they abound – you would know that living with them is a real trial. They are extremely ugly. They appear when you least expect them, and if you challenge them, they have a tendency to squirt a dark blue liquid all over the place and jump at you. No-one would want to keep them as a pet. There seems to be a fairly clear allusion to these in the movie, because the alien creatures are called, dismissively, “Prawns”.

The movie takes us into the relationship between humans and these aliens some way down the road. The “Prawns” have all been herded up and kept in compound squatter camps. There is a band of Nigerians who have seen the chance for making serious money in the supply of contraband. And there are the authorities, who, because of popular demand, have decided to evict the “Prawns” to a location further away from the city.

The human population is united across all sectors – race, gender, class. They want them removed. There are one or two slight impediments – such as “rights” which the aliens are seen to have, by the international community. So, there are a range of token nods in the direction of these “rights” but the general idea is clear. Come Hell or High Water – they will be removed.

The story is fairly blood-spattered and scattered with a range of villains. The sound effects, and the camera work spectacular. But there is one aspect which is really surprising. The aliens start to take on a significantly more humane character than their human “hosts”. Greed is the only determinant with the humans. They will stop at nothing to satisfy that greed. And the veneer of “rights” is just token adherence to the notion of ethics, rather than anything in any way substantial.

The lead character is nothing more than a naive and useful idiot, who has no idea that he is being used. The lead aliens don’t really have much personality – because their means of communication is a series of clicks and grunts, which makes engagement, for the audience at least, rather difficult. But the point is abundantly clear. The humans recognise none of their abilities. The aliens are dependent on human provision entirely. And that dependency creates a relationship of extreme and mostly one-sided violence on the part of the humans. They have no interest in the well being of the aliens. They only have interest in their own well-being. And these are degrees of exploitation.
The Nigerians (who also live in what is called a “camp”), in close proximity to the aliens, are the first level of exploitation. They believe that actually eating aliens will give them power. There are other more systematic, more clinical attempts at exploitation going elsewhere – but the theme is the same. It is simply a matter of level and degree.

And that is what I liked so much about the film. The violence is simply the outward symptom of an inner, almost psychotic impulse to dominate, rape and pillage. And when the whole scheme starts to come apart at the seams, then the media is there to lie and to spin and to distort reality. I think it is a really good movie. Go and see it!

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