Sunday, August 23, 2009

District 9 - Get on the Bus!

District 9, the sci-fi thriller named the "must-see movie of the summer" by Entertainment Weekly, has been out since August 14. Since my husband and I have two toddlers in our home, it is rare that we go on a movie date. We both love the sci-fi genre, and I relish any film with intelligent social commentary. Preachy can still be fun! Hence, we made the time to catch this hip new flick over the weekend.

I will spare you the background details and usual lead-up info that you'll find in the many professional reviews of this film. Here's the aforementioned Entertainment Weekly review in case you're interested:

Two facts I will throw out there are the modest $30 million budget and the age of the director, Neill Blomkamp: 29 years old! How's that for hitting those pre-30 milestones?? Way to go Mr. Blomkamp!

I will cut right to the chase by immediately commending the choice of setting for the film: Johannesburg, South Africa. If the objective is sharp social commentary involving racial and tribal loyalties and conflict, it's hard to beat this locale.

Many of us have spent some time contemplating religious, racial and ethnic conflict over the course of our lives. That is, if we contemplate at all... It's a little difficult to miss out on that particular "current issue", if you know what I mean. I'd almost feel obtuse if I started naming wars, instances of ethnic cleansing, and regional conflicts we have witnessed throughout our lifetimes no matter what our age. Think of how many a vampire could list! Anyway...

The absolute genius of this film, for me, was the aggressive and brutally honest analysis of how we, as humans, cling to our tribal, racial and ethnic origins to our own detriment as a species. I like to think of this film as a bus stop. If you see the film and make an attempt to absorb its message, you are waiting for a bus that you may or may not board. These days, there are more and more buses being added to the line and and there are also a lot of people trying to slit the bus tires. Where will the bus take you? To a place of mercy, compassion and acceptance of differences. A place of generosity. A place that has dethroned Fear as the monarch, and replaced him with Openness.

Here's a quick rundown of the plot and protagonists, and yes, this is a spoiler so if you plan to go, stop reading here and come back after you've seen it, or just skip over this paragraph:

A giant spaceship hovers over Johannesburg for several months and the aliens within make no appearance. A government agency called MNU is created to deal with the aliens, and human representatives finally board the ship. The aliens are sickly, starving, and confused. They are put into a refugee camp very close to the city of Johannesburg. How these aliens became stranded on Earth above South Africa remains a mystery, and eventually the creatures come to be called "Prawns" by the humans. South Africans, Whites and Nigerians sell to and barter with the aliens, whose favorite and most affordable form of nourishment is canned cat food. The aliens do have weapons, but nowhere near enough to be able to take on the humans, so for the most part they stay within their camp and eat their cat food. Eventually, their marginalization, extremely unfair bargaining power and poor living conditions push the Prawns to small criminal acts in order to obtain better food, essentials such as shoes, and more importantly electronic equipment to try and fix their mother ship. As a result of these increasing criminal acts, the Prawns come to be called terrorists and plans are made by MNU to relocate the Prawns to a new refugee camp 100 kilometers from Johannesburg. The project manager of the relocation project is the son-in-law of the head of MNU. His name is Wikus. He is filled with a sinister zeal which motivates him to evict the Prawns with the characteristic hatred we have seen so many times in real life stories related to ethnic cleansing, human rights abuses and torture. His zeal is purposefully portrayed as the product of fear and naivete and his character is depicted as more of a puppet than an evil commander. His foil is a Prawn who is called by the name of Christopher Johnson. Johnson has been working with his son and another Prawn to create a fluid that will allow the Prawns to fix their mother ship and return to their home planet. During the eviction process, Wikus clumsily confiscates this fluid, and in his violent gesture he accidentally ingests some of it. The rest of the fluid is transported to MNU headquarters. Wikus' ingestion of the fluid makes him sick and begins the biological process of transformation into a Prawn. He grows pincers in the place of one of his hands. MNU then tries to use him as a valuable resource to kill the other Prawns with their own weapons, since only Prawns can activate their weapons by using their pincers. When Wikus realizes that MNU in no way intends to save him, but only wishes to harvest his new ability to kill Prawns, he escapes back to Christopher Johnson's laboratory and hideout. The audience then discovers that not only Wikus' father-in-law and other family members, but also his own wife, are deceiving him and have written him off as dead. The rest of the action follows as you might imagine, with a lot of bumps and starts in the initial attempt of these two characters to cooperate in somehow retrieving the fluid for the ship and finding the method to transform Wikus back into a human. Wikus goes through a dramatic character evolution in that he ends up fighting against the South Africans, the Nigerians and the Whites to allow Christopher Johnson to escape in the mother ship with his son. Wikus had to literally become one of the creatures that he had hated in order to understand and cooperate with them, to the benefit of both the humans and the aliens.

The social commentary is not subtle, but the story and the effects render this film sublime. There is an obvious social movement underway across the globe that encourages riddance of tribal, religious and racial loyalties in favor of diplomacy and human rights. Hence, my bus metaphor. I could call it the "Peace Train", and that is a good song! But I don't want to get confused with any holy rollers! Do you think you would get on the bus if you had the opportunity? Have you thought about what it would mean to you and what sorts of fears or protectionism cause you to cling so passionately to your own tribal, cultural or ethnic origins when faced with an opposing group? It's a radical bus, and there may even be some flowers painted on it. I can't quite envision it yet because it's so far away from actualization.

Every group wants to point a finger at every other group. This is one thing I have noticed. "We only want peace. They are the aggressors. They have always staked claim to what is ours. They don't belong here and we do. Their philosophy is so alien to ours that we could never have a mutual understanding". If we want to start tallying up numbers of actual terrorists and which groups they belong to, perhaps there is a clear majority group at present. That said, throughout history, the majority group of terrorists has changed from age to age. There are ethnic groups on this planet, myriad Native American tribes being one example, that have been completely destroyed due to lack of tolerance, lack of respect and lack of mercy. This is a human flaw. This flaw is not a characteristic of one religious or racial group in particular. This sort of talk may inflame certain people, especially those who hold a special claim to a pure line of ethnic blood. That is their view, and they are free to hold it. There are very few of those sorts of people where I am from. Sadly, much of our American fabric has been built on creating a majority that has weeded out diversity due to fear and ignorance. I am speaking of diversity of religion, diversity of race, and diversity of ethnicity. Does it matter which majority is the one that fears and commits violent acts against another group? Is any majority with this attitude in the right?

At present, we have a President with an African father and Caucasian maternal ancestry. His election was a monumental step for this country and may I boldly say, speaks well for the future of me and my fellow bus riders.

Of course, attitudes of fear, vengeance and religious and tribal loyalties still run deep. A recent example of this is the statement of the White House following the "compassionate release" by the country of Scotland of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi so that this Libyan terrorist could go home and die in peace with family members in the final stages of an illness. The White House said it "deeply regrets" the release, recognizing the loss of the family members of the victims killed on Pan Am Flight 103. The US Attorney General, Eric Holder, strongly voiced his disappointment. "The interests of justice have not been served by this decision," he said in a statement. "There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist." Susan Cohen, the mother of one of the victims, was understandably more emotional in calling the release "vile" and in saying Scottish citizens should be ashamed of themselves and that the release had nothing to do with compassion, and everything to do with obtaining oil from Libya. If compassionate release were a policy created only for better oil diplomacy, then why did Jack Straw recently let the Great British Train Robber, Ronnie Briggs, go home to die with his family on the same basis? Compassionate release is part of the justice system in the UK, whether we Americans like it or not. In addition, no EU countries employ the death penalty. "An eye for an eye" is just not the trend of justice in most other Western nations.

Interestingly enough, "an eye for an eye" is still the trend in Middle Eastern countries. A personal friend of mine living in Saudi Arabia recently sent me a video of a young boy getting his hand severed off by a car running over it multiple times because he had stolen from a market. Is this because the populations of these countries are intrinsically more hateful and vengeful than the rest of us? Do they corner the market on harsh justice? More importantly, do we truly understand every link in the chain of events that led to the Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist bombing? Is it possible that the attackers were deprived and marginalized and abused by their own governments and other governments? Is it really for us to judge what should happen to this man's body, much less his soul?

I have an admission to make. I spent the night of September 11, 2001 alone in my apartment with a Muslim. I had moved to London from New York City days before, and this Lebanese young man was one of the first people to try to befriend me and welcome me to his city. He called me on the night of September 11, knowing that I was alone and could not reach my friends in NYC by phone. He came to my house and brought me food and candles, and we had our own vigil. We watched the television coverage of the event and cried. He was extremely emotionally distraught over the implications that this event would have for Muslims all over the world, and especially in Western countries. It was very meaningful to me that I spent that evening with a Muslim. I don't believe that it was a mistake. I believe that God was using that experience to teach me a lesson. I was learning not to react in hatred to a particular group or country.

Unlike Wikus in District 9, we don't need to ingest a chemical and go through a painful process of physical transformation to let go of our fear and hatred. We have the chance on our planet, right now, to begin true diplomacy with peoples and nations that have cultures and ethnic origins differing greatly from our own. We have the opportunity to base our policies on values such as human rights, mercy, and yes, compassion, rather than vengeance. There is a fine line between justice and vengeance. What do we as Americans, Christians, Jews or Muslims truly desire? Justice or vengeance? We have a long way to go to reach mutual understanding with those that we perceive to be our enemies. Unless we commence that journey, we may reach mutual doom sooner than we think.

I don't know if I'm on the bus yet, but I've made my way to the bus stop.

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