Monday, January 4, 2010

Toward a Better District 10

Avatar might be the movie James Cameron has wanted to make since he was a boy, but District 9 is the sci-fi movie I have wanted to see since I was disappointed by E.T. when I was 14. District follows the notion presented in Philip K. Dick’s statement, paraphrased here (I can’t find it online right now): You could be broke, and your wife could leave you, and still . . . aliens could come through the roof and get you. In a general sense, I take this to mean that aliens can come and become part of the messy milieu of life. They don’t have to be lithe, exotic creatures in silver suits. They don’t have to have a meaningful message for humanity. They don’t have to be here to conquer. Maybe we don’t even have to know why they are here. And what happens between the humans and aliens can be just as ordinarily degenerate as what happens between humans.

In District 9, aliens have come to earth -- Johannesburg, South Africa to be exact -- and become part of the social problems that plague this and many other parts of the world: overcrowding, slums, refugees, crime. The aliens are the new base on the pecking order of racism, with all races of humans speaking against the alien presence, using arguments we’ve heard and still hear from separatists -- that “It is for their own good,” that “they don’t belong here.”

The South African government wants to move the aliens from their current shanty town in Soweto to a refugee camp farther outside the city. The movie focuses on one obsequious bureaucrat, Wikus van de Merwe, who heads the process of going door-to-door and serving the aliens their notices.

What I see as the power of this movie is its raw and “realistic” presentation. Living in the shanty town, aliens are repeatedly shown digging through garbage, hacking animals to pieces for food, drinking and eating out of discarded containers. There are language and cultural barriers (though, remarkably, Wikus and some humans understand the aliens, and vice-versa) and misunderstandings ensue that lead to violence. When aliens don’t comply immediately with the humans’ demands, they are forced to their knees with hands behind their heads, forced to sign documents acquiescing to their eviction; and, when an alien does sometimes retaliate and throw a human aside, that alien gets blown away by the humans. One can not help but sense the parallels to our door-to-door operations early in the Iraq war; and a friend commented that these scenes from District 9 looked like a documentary he had seen on vigilante groups that patrol our border with Mexico and harass Latin Americans, apparently trying to provoke reactions against which the vigilantes can retaliate.

One wonders why the aliens let themselves get pushed around as much as they do, and this leads to some of the deeper issues in the movie. The aliens do have, after all, powerful weapons. Why not use them against the humans, when clearly their own self-defense is justified?

What the aliens do use the weapons for is currency. With their weapons, they buy, on a black market set up by a Nigerian criminal gang, cat food. The aliens are addicted to this cat food and hand over weapons readily in exchange for it while the humans are fascinated with the weapons and acquire them greedily.

We all know humans love weapons. Weapons provide the quickest way to power here on Earth. But the aliens loving cat food? This is incredible to me. Does this mean the aliens are not power-hungry? Is it that weapons are so commonplace for them, and easy to build, that they view them as a basic commodity, as we view the cat food that we trade to them?

(The aliens may feel safe selling the weapons to the humans since the humans can’t use the weapons. Governments and corporations and the Nigerian gang all hope for the day when they can make the weapons work; but for now, all they can do is acquire them and study them.)

Through the entire movie, nothing more than a desire for cat food is revealed of the alien population’s motives. We never learn why they came or if they even want to leave. I question whether they even know they are living in a slum. I mean, if they don’t know that weapons are awesome, and that cat food is nothing special, would they even know to prefer Spoleto to Soweto?

(Svetx suggests that the aliens were lost on the way to Spoleto and ended up in Soweto. Maybe they typed it into their Garmin wrong.)

Since I saw District 9 last spring, I have held it in nearly the highest esteem I have for any movie. I raved about it to my friend who, just the other night, called us over to watch it on Blu-Ray, the second viewing for myself and Svetx.

Here’s a bit of advice: If you love a movie, maybe you don’t want to hear the director’s commentary. We only listened to part of it, but in his commentary, director Neill Blomkamp reveals the insensitive way he constructed the Nigerian gang.

On my first viewing, I could have deemed the portrayal of the Nigerians as racist. But given the level of detail throughout the movie, and given the fact that all the humans in the movie are self-centered opportunists -- not even our accidental hero Wikus is admirable -- I accepted the Nigerians as a reasonably accurate portrayal of an aspect of human condition that would occur in an alien slum.

Lots of people do think the portrayal of the Nigerians is racist, as a quick Google search will tell you. In the movie, the Nigerians believe in witchcraft and eat aliens’ bodies on the presumption that this will enable them to use the aliens’ weapons. There is also mention that they run a prostitution operation for the aliens. This is definitely a negative image of the Nigerians. But the white South African government officials and their business and science cohorts are essentially doing the same thing -- using and abusing the aliens to get command of their weapons. I say this could be one of the valuable themes in the movie.

But then there’s this: in his commentary, the director admits that he could find no Nigerian actors to play those roles. And, he says, none of the non-Nigerians playing Nigerians could speak a Nigerian language. So, the gang leader, the witch doctor, and other gang members are all speaking whatever native African languages those actors know, and they are not actually understanding each other. Subtitles solve the problem for the viewer, telling us whatever the director actually wants us to hear. I’ll guess that most people in the world watching the movie can not tell the difference. But as my friend who bought the Blu-Ray said, “Surely they could have found some Nigerians to portray the Nigerians.” And then, as Svetx said, “Then they would have had someone who knows the culture and what it’s really like.”

In a movie that I want to celebrate for its “realistic” portrayal of race and alien relations, and human motives, this sloppy treatment of the Nigerians is a serious disappointment.

So how could the director have done better, or do better when the time comes to make District 10?

First, the prostitution could easily have been tossed out of the movie. This was, as I said, a brief mention; and given the vast differences between human and alien anatomy, I doubt that there would be enough interest to keep a prostitution racket going.

Second, the witchcraft was not even necessary for the plot. As it stands, the Nigerians capture Wikus, who is growing an alien arm because of an accidental encounter with alien DNA, and attempt to eat his alien arm. This drives Wikus to escape using the fancy alien weapons that only he among humans can use. Essentially the same scenario could have been achieved if the Nigerians, instead of trying to eat him, were to confine him and force him with torture to use the weapons on their behalf. (Torture is still a negative portrayal, you say? Sure, but in this scenario they’d be on par with the United States of America.)

In his director’s commentary, Neill Blomkamp says that he portrayed the Nigerians this way as a joke, and he apologizes to them (all Nigerians?) and anyone else who is offended by it.

Here is what I say. Neill, meet me at camera three. For District 10, there’s no need to joke like this. We are all humans together in your story. Your movie is not afraid to show us humans the bad news about ourselves. We are all power-hungry, lying, cowardly bitches -- with aliens thrown in. So, show us like we are, and be reasonably authentic, so that if anyone complains that you show Nigerians or anyone else as crooks at all, you can more honestly say that you are holding up the mirror, and it’s up to us what gets reflected in it.

I’ll finish off with a little more praise for your movie.

I love the faux documentary style. I love how the camera floats like my uncle shot it, and the acting is largely improvised (as you explain in your commentary), and somehow you “painted” in alien creatures while keeping it all spontaneous.

I love how you portray many layers of character in some of the interviews. Wikus wife, for instance, shows us a little bowl he had made for her. She says she sat on it (implying some disregard for Wikus’ feelings) and then says that all Wikus’ presents for her were taken away for the investigation . . . but then she made them bring them back (meaning she may have newfound respect for her husband given what she suspects he is going through).

I love that we never learn what the aliens were doing here. I love that, when the humans first blowtorched their way into the alien spaceship, the aliens were huddled in there, covered with feces perhaps, striking a parallel to factory farm animals.

Basically, I love your movie, But you can, and should, be more thorough, when you are trying to portray serious subject matter and make serious points.

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