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Monday, August 17, 2009

This Land is Our Land (Get Outta Here Aliens!)

Having just seen District 9 this weekend I have to come down on the side of critical consensus and say that I found it to be an exhilarating experience that was very much of the moment. "Of the moment" means that the plot doesn't hold up to greater scrutiny after the fact, with some story elements remaining poorly-explained or outright ignored (particularly with regard to the central issue of the use, value, and application of the Prawn technology).

Still, the exuberance of the thing - the energy of the action, the humor invested in the many situations protagonist Wikus Van de Merwe stumbles or is thrown into - makes it work in a way that the recent Star Trek reboot worked.

One thing that has left me a little irked since the movie bowed was the insistence (critically, at least) that the movie is a parable for Apartheid when it instead feels reflective of the recent immigration crisis experienced in South Africa. For a time there reports would pop up on CNN about attacks by SA locals on immigrants from Zimbabwe and other displaced persons and it was actually pretty hairy. According to this NY Times piece from 2007 something like 3900 illegal immigrants we being deported weekly. They were viewed by locals and preexisting immigrants as a challenge to low-wage jobs and homes in informal settlements. It was all about hustling to get a place on the totem pole even if it's at the bottom.

If I recall correctly the violence reached a fevered pitch sometime in the middle of 2008 with immigrants being burned out of their homes or even killed but in the time since nothing about the issue has really popped up on my radar.

Obviously, I get that Apartheid is the more recognizable cultural issue* from the area that still has resonance to this day but it doesn't really jibe with the issues presented in the film. Plus, I kind of feel like this "good immigrant/bad immigrant" story is thematically richer today across all borders. Not just in the U.S. but in any country where the poor feel they have to duke it out with the recent arrivals - the fear that the "unwashed masses" will somehow wash over everything that has been built before by the "good" immigrants (i.e. the ones that were there first).

It puts me in the mind of Miriam Colon character from Sayles' Lone Star - a successful Latina businesswoman and Mexican immigrant who had pretty much convinced herself she was born on this side of the border and had no compunction talking trash about anyone else trying to cross the border. The script painted her as a fairly nasty character made so by an initially hardscrabble life after the death of her husband.

I'm curious as to how much co-screenwriter Neill Terri Tatchell Blomkamp were conscious of the immolation of Zimbabwean immigrants and the violence and all that when they were putting the script together. Blomkamp's Alive in Joburg short was shot/released in 2005, around the time that the massive wave of Zimbabwean immigrants were crossing the border into South Africa. I suspect it had to have at least been somewhere in his mind during the making of both the short and the current feature.

*It should be noted that directed Neill Blomkamp has gone on record as saying that he's not trying to make an "issue" and that his District 9 is more of a big action film with some sociopolitical undertones kind of informing some of the narrative.

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