The nature of oppression: questions about District 9
[Note: I wrote this post mostly for those who have seen District 9, not to introduce the movie in a review format. So watch for spoilers.]
"One billion people, one-sixth of the world's population, now live in shanty towns."
Apartheid as a subject would probably not work well for a summer blockbuster. Throw in some aliens, however, then people can see a shanty town. Hence the basic brilliance of Neill Blomkamp's District 9. By combining edgy Orwellian/Kafkaesque political overtones with summer blockbuster conventions (firefights, aliens, neat sci fi weapons, mechanized Iron Man battle suits), Blomkamp has obliged us to look at something that many would just as soon not see--the evil effects of political oppression, xenophobia, racism, immigration, and dislocation. One can find parallels wherever one group invents rules and regulations designed to disenfranchise another--from the US treatment of Native Americans "obliged" to live in reservations, or Japanese-Americans shipped off to internment camps during World War II. You can also find parallels in the Nazi treatment of the Jews before and during WWII (and Wikus calls attention to this point by calling District 10 a "concentation camp"). Now, as a film blogger, my historical knowledge is mediocre at best, so I'll put the rest of my half-baked thoughts in the form of questions.
1) In the Wikipedia entry on District 9, I learned this:
"MNU's eviction and relocation of the aliens is based on District Six, a former inner-city residential area in Cape Town, South Africa. The district was declared a 'whites only' area by the apartheid government in 1966 and the population of 60,000 forcibly removed to Cape Flats, 25 kilometres away during the following years."
How accurately does District 9 reflect the history of this eviction and relocation, and how does it differ?
2) How much does District 9 reflect colonialist oppression, especially when it becomes clear that the MNU wants to harvest biological material from Wikus for profit? At one point, someone mentions that he has become the "most valuable business artifact on earth," so nevermind if he might die in the process of gathering info from him. The film implies that when if comes to high-level commercial and/or corporate interests, human life and suffering are of no consequence. How much is this true today, or does Blomkamp exaggerate the evil powers that be in the film? I like the way MNU hires mercenaries to do their dirty work much as Halliburton has been accused of in Iraq. [Note: Daniel Engber of Slate finds this anticorporate bias banal.]
3) How much does the arms trading theme in District 9 comment upon American arms sales worldwide?
4) District 9 is full of surveillance images, as if Blomkamp meant to show us how easily one could reconstruct a story of one man from all of the surveillance cameras that follow him through a city at one time, just as in Enemy of the State or Orwell's 1984. After a certain point, of course, this conceit breaks down when Wikus hides out in the alien slum where cameras are unlikely to be. But still, it left me wondering how much Blomkamp might be commenting on insidious surveillance techniques in Africa and elsewhere.
5) Blomkamp is very innovative in his use of special effects--what Wired calls its "Grungy Alien Realism." Instead of heightening his science fiction images of aliens and the space ship hovering overhead just as in Independence Day, Blomkamp deemphasizes them and surrounds them with trashy, everyday squalor. The only other films that I know that do something this would be Children of Men and perhaps Blade Runner. Are there others? In this respect, District 9 is the opposite of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
6) I also liked the way the MNU bureaucracy played such a large role in District 9. Instead of being an action figure (at least at first), Wikus starts off as a dweeby and deluded bureaucrat who believes in his mission of getting aliens to sign release forms to arrange for their dislocation. His scene with the alien Christopher Johnson is telling because when Christopher refuses to sign, Wikus quickly comes up with another rule to get what he wants. The film shows how those in power impose obscure, arcane laws on the oppressed. This impersonalizes the subordination, masking the aggression underlying it. How much did Apartheid use the same techniques?
7) What other movies use the central idea of a man or creature metamorphosing throughout the storyline? Alien, Slither, Spider-Man, and Cronenberg's The Fly all come to mind. Wikus must change for him to understand the aliens' point of view. Otherwise, just as the humans casually call the aliens "prawns," there's often the tendency to stereotype the other as less than human. Whereas usually summer blockbusters favor the point of view of the dominant power, such as in G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, District 9 forces Wikus and the viewing audience to better understand the oppressed, and that's what makes the film revelatory.