Why District 9 Teaches You About Humanity – A Study in the Power to Disturb

September 8, 2009

Did you miss out on this? Get it here! The Words We Regularly Use To Say Nothing Is Something – A Study in the travesty of reason

climbers-northcolIt doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it just hits the spot – no I am not talking about my Friday night binges with the local Bangla’s troupe in the void deck. I am referring to the deeply satisfying experience of watching a well crafted sci-fi film that goes beyond your average two in one; let-me waste-your-time-and-insult-your-intelligence flick.

The story is set in Johannesburg South Africa, the first thing that comes thick in the first half of the movie is the narrative has a reality based documentary feel about it.

The plot goes like this: 25 years ago an alien spaceship roughly the size of Sengkang suddenly appears over a city.

When men with no necks armed with assault rifles decide to check the distressed alien ship, they discover loads of aliens who are basically the equivalent of starving Ethiopians; the long and short is we are told the aliens took a wrong turn and can never return back home so we humans dump in a refugee camp called District 9.

What fascinates me about this movie was how the script turns many of our assumptions about alien movies upside down – in District 9, the aliens aren’t depicted as the take me to your leader master of the universe typecast – they come across as inter-galactic karung guni dispossessed nohopers all rolled up into one flea bag – no alien power there.

In the sardonic words of their human overseers: “they’re nothing more than prawns” – your gold fish probably has more rights than them. As they’re subjected to all sorts of inhuman treatment (now you know why inalienable rights count for squat), everyone it seems to want a piece of them.

Arms manufacturers go ga-ga over alien weapons technology. Electronic chip makers are enamored by their cybernetics based control systems. Politicians use the alien as a way of sowing discord to get their grubby hands on the levers of power. Businessmen see the settlement of aliens very much in the way prison services these days are outsourced to private firms – even your friendly Nigerian scam artist who used to trawl the internet are doing brisk business with aliens peddling expired cat food for alien trinkets.

The long and short of it is everyone wants a piece of the alien action. The story in the first half basically unfolds at roughly the speed of a motorized wheel chair – the main protagonist is a company man who goes by the name of Wikus – he’s basically the equivalent of your friendly HDB officer, dengue inspector and local PAP kommissar who keeps knocking on your door because his job is to remind you doors are made to be knocked on.

One day Wikus stumbles on the equivalent of an alien A*Star bio tech experiment – he accidentally maces himself and his DNA goes all wonky and he becomes one of the hunted prawns.

And this is really the point when the plot begins to take off in earnest – as not only do we see a dramatic change in the supremely indifferent Wikus who till then basically considered all aliens as chattels, but we even get to see a sort of metamorphosis going on where Wikus even ends up identifying with the plight of the aliens he once terrified.

When that happens, a shift occurs; not a big one, but enough to remind us how we humans may not be so different from even aliens.

District 9 is really the quintessential tabula rasa – just as some people may consider Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine chapel as nothing more than a colorful comic; others may see it in even profound terms and regard it even as a tour de force of the human creative spirit.

For me what you make of a film is really what you choose to add to it and never what you may take from it – District 9 is one of those movies that borders on the noir; there is loads of room for improvisation and whatever you decide to take from the power to trouble.

As the set pieces that make up the human versus alien conflict can just as well be replaced by how we typically see ourselves in relation to society at large – here I am referring to our beliefs and values which differentiate us from those who may not have the same mindscape – it could well be how we choose to regard those who hold different religious beliefs or even something as trite as many of our assumptions about Bangladeshi expatriates or the seemingly ubiquitous house maid – stretch it further and you could perhaps even juxtapose it to draw out a whole lot of disturbing metaphors, motifs and montages: the foreign talents versus home grown debate, Singaporean Malays and Malaysian Malays, us versus them, internet versus officialdom. The set pieces may be different, but they all belong to the same stripe and would undoubtedly find themselves right at home in the human versus alien genre – You think, you have a God given right to take away my rights in the name of X,Y and Z? District 9 punctuates that belief with a disturbing coda: You better think again! Lest you find yourself getting fucked when it all comes full circle  The list of comparatives are really only limited by ones imagination – only lets be perfectly clear about what the plot is really all about from start to end: it’s an engagement in one of man’s oldest hobbies in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness at the expense of others.

A recurrent theme plays out in District 9; one that bears striking resemblance to the theme Joseph Conrad wrote about in “the heart of darkness.” Where he mentioned, in the age of empire how it is well known that curious men go prying into all sorts of places and come out of them with all sorts of spoils.

As we watch the horror unfolding before Wikus eyes as he tries to slalom safely through the labyrinth of business, politics and power – one is left with the indelible belief what Conrad once shared remains true even to this day and I suspect the future: he warns us not only of the evils of false pride, but also of the spoils that will come back and bite us if we fail to square off the accounts with humanity; along with how crumbly our whole notion of “civilization” and “superiority” really is. As when we boil even the best argument down to crud, the real justification that empowers one person to disrespect another is simply predicated on one timeless piece of desiccated cow dung.

“The conquest of the earth, which most means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter nose than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

No District 9 is definitely not “war and peace.” But it’s not an irreverent goody good versus evil take, like “Star Wars” either – it’s definitely none of these things – the only unifying force I would claim for it’s place in the Sci-Fi flick hall of fame is it’s remarkably true to itself even in the classical tradition of story telling; it’s doesn’t try too hard; it even lacks the essential quality of keenness – like that other book that takes one down a narrow sliver of water somewhere in Congo called the heart of Darkness; all it really does is allow us to discover the limits of what it means to remain gainfully human, for that reason alone – District 9 abides.

Darkness 2009 – The brotherhood press 2009 / This essay has been published in SLF 1 to 7 / Ekunaba / Phi Beta Kappa / Just Stuff / Strangelanders / Ikaran.

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