A few months ago in Los Angeles I was rather baffled when driving from the airport to the center I noticed public benches along the road with big signs painted on them, saying “FOR HUMANS OLNY”. Tonight I went to see Neill Blomkamp’s movie District 9 and suddenly realised what this all was about.
Let me first get this off my chest : District 9 really is a good movie, easily one of the best I’ve seen this year – and I have seen a few pretty good ones. It excels in a number of different ways and is a very thought-provoking, relevant and deeply ironic piece. The camerawork is particularly good, and the way how different formats such as newscast, interview or hand-held camera have been used is nothing short of genius. Although the movie has a couple of sentimental slips they didn’t really distract from the overall experience – which is pretty bleak and disturbing.
But more about the way the movie works: while the mockumentary and mock-newscast formats have became kind of popular recently in Hollywood movies (see “Sweet and Lowdown” and “Syriana”, for example), D9 takes it to a new level. Not only does the movie itself play with formats we are used to acquire and digest information with, it also expands the same thing into areas such as outdoor media (such as park benches in LA that I mentioned), websites (see MNU and Non-Human Rights movement site, for example) and social networking sites (on Twitter and Facebook). In this way, D9 is critical towards both modes of engagement with the world – the purportedly objective gaze of CNN/BBC as well as their hundreds of smaller and local off-shoots, as well as Facebook- and twitter activism (which all too often boils down to statements such as “non-humans are humans too” – something that Ali G has already parodied earlier). It is precisely that kind of an “objective reporting” and armchair activism that allow us to distance ourselves, not only to objectivize what’s happening but also objectify those it is happening to. Because ultimately this is the only thing, the modus vivendi that allows us to see and realize everything that’s going on in places like Darfur, Palestine, Rwanda, and indeed, often in our own cities, and still go on seeing ourselves as moral subjects. It is only possible through dehumanizing the other in our minds, both collective and personal.
[*** MILD SPOILER ALERT ***] It is also interesting to note how the camerawork changes from detached newscast format into a hand-held camera akin to this used in Blair Witch Project once the protagonist moves into the D9 and becomes an alien (both literally and metaphorically) himself. Losing the professional editing and voiceover, what we see suddenly becomes a lot more subjective, and this inevitably changes also the way we see those it is happening to – they become human, in the deep sense of that word. Actually, even the mockumentary/newscast-format parts have a layer of this self-awareness, with a couple of scenes left in which are being referred to as something that will have to be edited out later. And then, before the movie returns to newscast format at the very end, we have a short patch of rather typical Hollywood-type view of heroic battle and self-sacrifice that appears to be the usual mode in which we conceptualize heroism.
Oh, and as far as I’m concerned, Sharlto Copley’s performance as Wikus van de Merwe is absolutely amazing.
So if you haven’t, do yourself a favour and go see it.