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.


Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr. - A lot of great questions here. I saw it last night in a packed house - looking, as you said, for summer movie thrills, but rather encountering some pretty serious shit. I saw girlfriends burying their faces in boyfriends' shoulders. I heard winces and "yuks" in response to the rather noisome visuals: vomit, piss, rotten meat, blood, garbage, mutilated alien corpses, severed limbs both human and alien. Most of that stuff appears in the first half of the film - which raises all the serious issues you present here; the second half reverts more to the typical summer movie action. (My wife also referred to the robot thing at the end as being "just like Iron Man.)

But here's a question for you - I noted intentional and perhaps unintentional humor in the first half that seemed to jar; I'm not sure it worked. What do you think? First of all, Wikus is supposed to be a nerdy, bungling guy - but he seemed so over the top. I called him a South African Borat - and he's just like Borat - with the live camera going - when he goes to shanties and spouts his knowledge but unexpected things happen. I will write more about this in my own post.

Yes, of course, all the historical parallels are there - and yet the film becomes less about those issues and more about the human's transformation - which I enjoyed. I liked a lot of aspects about this film, but I'm not all of it worked.
Richard Bellamy said…
Uh, last line should read: not sure all of it work.
Thanks, Hokahey. I didn't find Wikus Borat-like because much of his behavior can also be understood in terms of his xenophobia. Even though he's part of this supposedly benevolent bureaucracy, he still uses terms like "prawn" in a kind of unconscious speciesism (or whatever you call it). He also blithely laughs at the roasting alien embryos, not at all understanding what the aliens feel. He doesn't begin to learn what they feel until he's obliged to shoot one of them. He also has a kind of cultural blindness that one could find comical if it didn't happen all of the time in other contexts. In his ignorance, he wants to laugh at the "primitive" natives. He's a clueless bureaucrat, but his kind is needed to fulfill the larger power agendas at work in the movie. Especially when he began to wander the shanty town on official business, completely unaware of the lives he's endangering, he seemed too true to life to seem that funny.
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr - Your analysis of Wikus is probably more what the filmmakers intended than mine, but I felt his nerdy cluelessness was so over the top that he came off as funny. This might have been intended as irony - nevertheless, his character didn't quite work effectively for me in the first third of the movie.

Then, as he transformed, I couldn't help but empathize with what was happening to him while, at the same time, I enjoyed his transformation for all its ironic significance.

I'm still mulling over how I feel about this movie. I found myself enjoying the more generic sci-fi elements of the film: his transformation; his alliance with Christopher; the commando raid on the institution; the attempted escape in the shuttle; Wikus's last stand in the robot armor - more than I liked all the pointed commentary on segregation and heartless bureaucracy in the first third of the film. Though, I guess, I wish those parts had worked better for me.
It's interesting how our responses went in two different directions. The documentary beginning and the emphasis on slum conditions led me to take the film very seriously, probably more so that the filmmakers intended. I found myself brought up short by the familiar science fiction elements, especially the Iron Man get-up and the G. I. Joe-like weapons, but I understand that they were included in part for commercial reasons. I also liked dwelling on how many other movies include the "suicide mission" on the enemy compound. There's The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and especially Independence Day, just to name a few. It seems to me that ideologically, Independence Day is the opposite of District 9, but otherwise they are very similar.

By the way, thanks for the link on your blog.
Cherrie Pie said…
Such interesting look into racism, slavery and the workings of the government all mashed into one...I definitely recommend this movie..!!
Sam Juliano said…
I am not pepared yet to get into this, but I loved the movie, and consider it one of the best films of the year. man's inhumanity to man was given a powerful treatment here in this emotional film.
I'm glad that you liked it, Sam. I've noticed that this movie has polarized critics more than most. I've seen some persuasive posts (by Jason Bellamy and others) pointing to the movie's lack of plausibility in areas, and other problems. As much as anything, I found District 9 so thought-provokingly different from the usual fare, I was more willing to ignore the film's weaknesses as a result.
Joel Bocko said…
I'll repost what I wrote on Tony Dayoub's blog about this movie. I have not seen it but am skeptical based on what I've heard:

"A friend of mine, who ended up loving the movie, described its plot to me and I have to say I was somewhat incredulous. My problems actually begin with the premise, not just the film's deviations from it (which I wouldn't know about, having not yet seen it). Why represent the victims of apartheid as outsiders, when the whole irony of apartheid was that it subjected the MAJORITY (the NATIVE majority, no less!) to rule by the few and the foreign. And why actually set the allegory in South Africa - wouldn't it work better if the setting was indeterminate?

I have a feeling Armond White's arguments run along the same lines - I used to love reading him until his entirely predictable contrariness became as tiresome as the mindset he was reacting against.

Anyway, I'm with you on the bait-and-switch. I felt Pan's Labyrinth did the same, albeit on a higher level: I went to excited to see a film which combined mythology with the Spanish Civil War, but while the mythical creatures were fantastic, the historical portrait was cartoonish and hence the tension between "reality" and fantasy was slack.

I think film style has become too synthetic and screenwriting too facile to grapple with the implications ambitious mainstream filmmakers like to raise."
Joel Bocko said…
And here's the rest:

"The more I think about it, the more the whole aliens-as-apartheid theme bugs me. The ONLY way I can see it working is if it's presented, like Starship Troopers (or part of Starship Troopers, anyway), as a slyly subversive take on fascism from within the fascists' mindset. In other words, if what we're supposed to be seeing is a racist Afrikaner's paranoia filtered through sci-fi.

That's not the sense I get from the hype (maybe I'm wrong, and someone who's seen the movie can enlighten me). It's nice that the film sympathizes with the victims of segregation and oppression, but by casting them as outsiders it is perpetuating the myth of the black African as "other" - when in fact it is was the Europeans who were the natural "others" in South Africa.

This is not to say the "other" is always morally superior or anything, but it's a crucial fact in understanding apartheid that, it bears repeating, it was the NATIVE population, the MAJORITY of the country (do the aliens outnumber the humans in this film?), which was held down by a minority from elsewhere. When the film repurposes the scenario, it obscures an extremely important element of apartheid."

"Yeah, it's worth pointing out that I don't have a problem with movies being politically incorrect, so to speak, I just can't stand hypocrisy. Many great films are morally and/or ideologically dubious, but none that fudge or hedge on what they're about (which has aesthetic implications as well as ethical ones). So my doubts about District 9 (and they remain just doubts at this point, since I haven't seen the movie) have twofold implications. One, as you point out, is the film's moral duty - people thinking they will be getting history served through sci-fi are ill-served and those looking for a penetrating if indirect reflection of apartheid will be duped.

But, ultimately I am more interested in the aesthetic implications of this stance. A movie's ill-conceived politics or irresponsible omissions and transformations have no real bearing on a film's worth, I think, except indirectly. Which is to say that the film's interpretation of apartheid may reflect most poorly on the film not because it's wrong but because it's intellectually lazy and, here's the real kicker, LESS INTERESTING than it would have been to show the aliens as not yet another oppressed minority (which has been done to death) but a mass suppressed by an elite group, made to feel like an "other" when, in fact, it's imprisoned in its own homeland.

This is primarily where my doubts about District 9 arise from: it seems allegorizes history by making said history less compelling, and its treatment of the fundamental issues at stake seem sloppy and vulgar. From a distance - this is a judgement of how the film has been presented more than the film itself, obviously.

I guess that's a little overboard, especially for a film I hadn't seen, but I wanted to make it clear that I don't think a film has to automatically be either PC or faithful to the historical record; however, creative decisions have results, and sometimes they can be poor."

That's an astonishing amount of analysis coming from someone who hasn't seen the movie. By all means, see it, and I'd like to hear more of your thoughts then. District 9 has gradually developed its share of detractors, but I enjoyed the way it obliged a mainstream audience to consider apartheid at all, not to mention shanty towns, institutionalized racism, immigrants, and so on. I appreciate your discussion of the Other, but the film complicates matters by bringing Nigerian gangsters into the mix. I agree that the politics can be a bit murky, and the film is implausible in places, but it still seems to me that most alien/blockbuster/franchise/-type films tend to reaffirm the prejudices of its audience--such as in G. I. Joe and Independence Day. District 9 does not, simply because it is set in Johannesburg, the kind of place more Americans would just as soon not know about at all. And I like the idea of aliens being treated as second-class citizens when they used to be given Godlike mystery and transcendence. Add in the metamorphosis theme, and you get an odd blend of the derivative and the original. I think I would have liked the film for its grunge use of special effects alone.
D Harvey said…
Smut, nothing but sadistic, brutal and empty smut! As an avid South African Sci-Fi geek this movie does nothing but hit on the theme of oppression (and very violently!). This country has endured this all too well. The intended humour (if one can call it that)is both baseless and mindless. The entire plot is simply black & white versus aliens, where, 20 years ago here in SA it was white vs black. The apparent attempt at 'triumph of the spirit' (Mr Wikus) does does nothing but make a mockery of this. 'Mr Flowercamp' has tried to monopolise on this through a 'supremacist' theme. Poor taste, bad effort and NOT WORTH THE EFFORT. Mr 'Flowercamp' needs to re-evaluate his ideas.
Thanks for your comment, D. Harvey. District 9 has elicited a lot of strong reactions. I found it engaging in part because so few sci-fi movies focus on the poor, and in part because I know so little about the history of South Africa. Did you see the discussion of the real District 6 near Cape Town in the recent Newsweek piece? Here's the link:
sophomorecritic said…
the point about this being derivative in any way of Enemy of the State and 1984 is not something I really agree with. I think it's just a convention of the mockumentary format that's been permeated a lot on TV, that the viewer's point of view is not entirely equal to the reality of the documentarian. You as the viewer are being shown more of a story than the documentary, and the documentary can be present as much as it wants. This happens in the Office or Parks and Recreation where not every single minute is told as a documentary.
sophomorecritic said…
the point about this being derivative in any way of Enemy of the State and 1984 is not something I really agree with. I think it's just a convention of the mockumentary format that's been permeated a lot on TV, that the viewer's point of view is not entirely equal to the reality of the documentarian. You as the viewer are being shown more of a story than the documentary, and the documentary can be present as much as it wants. This happens in the Office or Parks and Recreation where not every single minute is told as a documentary.