Tuesday, October 6, 2009

District 9 -- empathy as cure to prejudice

Director: Neill Blomkamp, 2009.

Blomkamp's full-length feature film debut is a fresh new vision of science fiction. Hired by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) to adapt the Halo video game into a film, that project was cut after months of work. Instead, Jackson financed Blomkamp to make his own film. Taking his earlier concept short film Alive in Joberg, Blomberg rewrote the screenplay and turned it into this inventive creation.

It is present day and a huge spaceship hovers immobile above a large city. However, this is not a Hollywood movie so the city is not New York or Los Angeles. It is not even Chicago. No, it is Johannesburg in South Africa. The spaceship arrived 28 years-ago, and as the citizens of earth waited for some contact or conflict, nothing happened. After months of waiting, the South Africans cut their way into this mothership and discovered alien creatures resembling human-sized shrimp. In an act of global humanitarianism, they ferried these aliens to earth and set them up in a "temporary" refugee camp known as District 9. Now, almost three decades later, the aliens have worn out their welcome and their district is a slum. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has become City of God, or perhaps City of Aliens!

Blomkamp has used non-celebrities in this film. In fact, these are unknown actors and even real people in some of the interview footage. His protagonist, Wikus Ven De Merwe, is played by Sharlto Copley, an unassuming and unprepossessing man who would not draw a second glance in the street. Around him, Blomkamp creates his aliens with astounding cgi effects. Indeed, the story and the character development of Wikus makes these strange creature totally believable. And, like City of God, the shacks of District 9 were all actual shacks from a real-life ghetto in Johannesburg.

The film opens like a documentary. Wikus is interviewed, as are others. Talking heads reflect back on a mysterious and unnamed incident that made Wikus famous. This foreshadowing is foreboding of what is to come and ratchets up the suspense. The interviews bring us up to speed on what has happened and endow the film with a heightened sense of gritty realism.

There are now almost two million aliens living in squalor. Their shanty town is infested with hatred and crime. Along the way, Nigerian gangsters have moved into exploit these aliens, and are carving out huge profits in illicit trade. Poverty and crime ignite prejudice and judgmentalism amongst the human population of "Joburg." They no longer see opportunity in this interaction with an alien civilization. They merely see the crime and violence that has been born from the ghetto. They refer to the aliens as "prawns," a derogatory term. The aliens have become de-alienized.

Although the aliens are obviously non-human, they represent the blacks of 20th century apartheid in South Africa. Blomkamp has created this vision of the future based on his childhood growing up during these apartheid years. The blacks were dehumanized and separated from whites. They had to live in slums, ghettos. Indeed, prejudice and judgmentalism is prevalent in the unredeemed human heart. It seems we prefer to surround ourselves with those who look like us, who think like us. Then we can separate the rest and make ourselves better than them by putting them down, physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. This is all rooted in the wicked and sinful heart (Jer. 17:9).

Obviously we are not better than other people. Living in suburbs with other white skinned people does not make the blacks of the slums inferior. God made us all equally in his image (Gen. 1:26) regardless of skin color. In fact, diversity is actually more likely to lead to healthier and more creative living because our blind-spots will be exposed for correction.

With the population crying out for the aliens to be gone, the militaristic multi-global Multi-National United (MNU) corporation is hired to evict the alien population and move them to a "better" tent city, District 10, several hundred miles away. There, they will be out of sight and out of mind. Apart, the human population will feel safer. But this is more like a concentration camp than the hovels of District 9. Shades of naziism.

Wikus is selected as the MNU officer to lead the project and descends on the fenced-in ghetto along with a phalanx of military protectors. Going door-to-door, he must get a signature from each alien to "legalize" this immoral action. When something goes wrong, Wikus finds himself an object of interest to MNU, not for himself or his service, but because he can suddenly fire the alien weapons. He has become a unique commodity, more precious than gold or oil. He is exploited for financial gain without any due process or regard for his personal interests or rights.

This aspect of District 9 brings to mind the haunting images of military experiments conducted illegally and unethically on Jewish prisoners by the Nazis during WW2. The Japanese, too, conducted similar experiments on humans who were their prisoners or peoples considered "subhumans." Such exploitation was for the purposes of military advantage. Here it is for financial gain. Either way, biblically the individual person takes precedence over such gain. There is no defense for exploitation of this type. Social injustices like this may still occur in parts of the world, and the Bible calls us to highlight and fight against such societal ills. We cannot remain silent and condone activities like this.

When District 9 moves into its second half, Wikus is a man on the run, like Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive. It starts to feel like a Hollywood action film. The documentary approach takes second fiddle to straight up normal cinema. And here the film loses something. But it still carries us along with the tension and suspense of Wikus' character development.

One of the means to oppose prejudice is empathy. Walking a mile in another man's shoes gives us a new appreciation for that man and his life. We see from a new and different perspective. Hurt and hunted, Wikus gets that opportunity, and befriends Christopher Johnson and his son, a smarter than typical alien. He is no prawn. He is a person, albeit an alien person. He has feelings. He has desires. At one point Wikus realizes he likes Christopher more than his human father-in-law. He can no longer call them prawns.

We can suffer from prejudice, too. Empathy will help us, as it helped Wikus. We can seek to understand others, especially those who are marginalized. Jesus did this during his earthly life. He spent time with the lepers (Matt. 26:6), the tax collectors (Matt. 9:10), the sinners (Mk. 2:15). He got to know them, he empathized with them. When this is combined with love and grace, we will go a long way towards transformation. We will change and they will change. We will be be brought closer together. And like Wikus, we will realize these "lower-class citizens" are real people, like you and me. No longer can we call them names. They are us.

District 9 is a dark and violent film, a tremendous debut from a new director. And it leaves us with haunting images and deep thoughts. Jesus became one of us to reach us and to save us (Phil. 2:7). Perhaps we need to become like those we fear, those we hate, so we might learn to love them and perhaps to see them saved.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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