Saturday, August 22, 2009

District 9

... When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher

...And the eyes of the world are
watching now
watching now

Biko by Peter Gabriel

From the opening scenes of squalor and poverty in Johannesburg, you know that District 9 is not going to be some sanitized and overly clean piece of Hollywood sci-fi. Actually, my first thoughts when I saw these scenes was not of science fiction, but rather of another movie based in South Africa, Cry Freedom, about the friendship formed between a South African journalist, Donald Woods, and freedom fighter Steve Biko. Cry Freedom, from 1987, is one of my favorite movies and it was very important at the time internationally. The movie, and the book written by Donald Woods that it was based on, did a lot to awaken the world to the plight of the blacks in South Africa under apartheid.

District 9, which chronicles the oppression of a stranded alien race in Johannesburg, is an obvious allegory for apartheid South Africa in the 80's. At least it's obvious for anyone that cracks a book occasionally. I'm sure there will be a large contingent, perhaps of younger people, that doesn't understand the symbolism, but that's OK. The movie works on a visceral level also. You can understand the transformation of the main character regardless of whether you know what the movie represents.

The parallels with Cry Freedom are extensive, at least to me:

- the apartheid angle

- a white Anglo protagonist who is initially critical of the resistance but comes around to being sympathetic to them

- that protagonist is not only critical of the resistance at the start but also active in it's suppression. Donald Woods writes editorials critical of Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. In District 9, a corporate operative under orders, Wikus Van De Merwe, seeks to relocate the stranded aliens.

- each performs a selfless act that endangers himself so that the resistance can escape in some manner ... whether it is literally in District 9 or through words in Cry Freedom.

- the character of Stephen Biko and the main alien in District 9, Christopher Johnson, seem initially like cruel and arbitrary terrorists but are actually brave advocates for their people.

- the resistance is dehumanized by their containment, their abuse, and the derogatory manner in which they are talked about. They are made to seem as though they were less than a person.

In every case District 9 does a great job of driving the symbolism home. It's cast is of no-name actors, though I recognized a few from Peter Jackson movies. Peter Jackson produced District 9 for his protege, Neill Blomkamp. They were initially going to work on a big-screen adaption of Halo, but that fell through and Jackson offered Blomkamp $30 million to make a movie on whatever subject he wanted. District 9 is the result. Considering it made back it's investment in the very first weekend, Jackson seems to be continuing his artistic lucky streak.

Now District 9 is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. I've heard some people complain about the extensive use of hand-held cameras. It can be nauseating at times if you are not prepared.

Others have complained that the apartheid symbolism is too obvious. If this movie was made in the 80's, I'd maybe agree with them. But it's made 25 years later. Sure, you could have set it in a different part of the world, but the director is from South Africa. He is making a movie that tells of his personal experience. You cannot criticize him for that.

The violence, gore, and moral ambiguity of some of the characters are sticking points for yet others. We've gotten into this discussion on another blog that I participate in, here. I won't belabor the points I made there, but my main point is that true art should be a reflection of the real world. It should represent some kind of truth. Not necessarily a pleasant truth, but one we should hear. Life isn't black and white and nobody is "pure". District 9 is just a representation of that fact. But District 9 is not a history lesson. It's still entertainment.

The movie may seem hard for some people to watch. How could humans possibly treat an alien species this way? You know how ... the same way in which they treat people of a different skin color or of a different religion. We've done it throughout history. We continue to do it. If you can't stomach this, then how can you stomach Gitmo, the Iraq war, Afghanistan? The point of good art is to get you to look at something in a different way, from a different perspective. By showing how we treat an alien race, hopefully this will show how we treat each other. But that's just my two-cents worth. Go see this movie, you won't come out of it apathetic. And while you're at it, check out Cry Freedom. Grade: A


Antimatter said...

Great review that echoes many of the sentiments I've seen expressed about District 9. Really looking forward to it! I read a news piece recently where it was mentioned that one of the things that impressed Peter Jackson was the fact that Blomkamp was telling a personal story, something many other up and coming filmmakers don't do.

CyberKitten said...

It's out here in a few weeks. Needless to say I'll be seeing it.

josh said...

Glad to read good review. A couple people I know have seen it and were iffy on it. I really want to see it though.

Free Movies said...

The soundtrack was okay, the action itself was alright, too (some of the weapons were actually pretty cool albeit strongly reminding of 3PS and FPS games...)