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Issue 20,  August 31, 2009     —      Wider Screenings, The Universality of Human Rights

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                                                        with Robert Cettl

The Universality of Human Rights
District 9

Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 (produced under the auspices of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson) is a thrilling science-fiction allegory on race, human rights and individual identity.   It is the best science fiction film to emerge in some time and its influence is likely to be felt for some considerable time as the genre seeks increasing intellectual and ethical complexity even in such as the recent Star Trek remake.  Currently screening to a wave of popularity, District 9 posits an alien spaceship that plants itself above Johannesburg, South Africa.  Inside the spaceship is an alien race, malnourished and impoverished.  The aliens are relocated to the ground below, into a sealed-off area (the title district) which quickly becomes a ghetto – the aliens have horrible hygiene and are unruly scavengers who take to living in rundown shacks.

Inevitably, crime and even inter-species prostitution thrive in the ghetto.  Soon, resentment of the ghetto grows amongst the local South African residents (black and white) who pressure the (white) government to relocate the aliens away from District 9.  A barely competent bureaucrat (expertly played by Sharlto Copley) is assigned the task of re-locating the aliens: the law requiring that he personally go into District 9 to deliver 24hr eviction notices to the alien residents, most of whom do not even know what “eviction” is, let alone why they are being evicted.  Without giving too much away, Copley is soon pursued by his superiors in relation to genetic changes in his body which make him useful in deciphering the alien weaponry (naturally, the government’s main agenda).

Blomkamp structures District 9 as a documentary so that necessary plot exposition is established with a journalistic immediacy.  The device is clever for it establishes the film as a socio-logical, cultural and political docudrama in tone, texture and appearance – the recreation of reality here is astonishing and the deployment of documentary techniques (or “mockumentary” techniques as essentially everything here is fictional) makes what is otherwise traditionally clichéd sci-fi material (alien weapons technology, illegal medical experimentation) feel fresh and exciting.  In that, District 9 turns away from the pseudo-supernaturalist ethos of such alien-visiting dramas as The X-Files (the last film of which – I Want to Believe – was nothing more than thinly veiled Catholic apologia) to embrace head-on the ethical, secular humanist concerns inherent in the material.

In that, District 9 draws on an existing body of work within the science-fiction genre.  In the 1950s, fears of alien invasion dominated: it was the dawn of the nuclear age in America and the fear of alien invasion functioned as a displacement of Cold War fears of annihilation.  These fears peaked in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still – a film that the US Dept. of Defense refused to co-operate with because the film’s pacifist themes were considered un-American.  Here, the alien came to warn Earth to mend its ways before it is judged dangerous by alien civilizations and destroyed before it can harm the universe.  As US cinema moved from American isolationism to reckon with secular humanism within a global community – as enshrined by the US’s responsibility to the UN – subjects of integration dominated: thus, Alien Nation posited aliens and humans living side by side on Earth.

Alien Nation was at its core a buddy movie about a human cop partnered with an alien cop and gradually overcoming his racist resentment to embrace the humanist bond between them.  Using race relations as a thematic basis (the alien cop could just as easily have been black and the film made into a black cop / white cop picture), Alien Nation explored the concept of humanity (and human rights) as an ideal.  Race and gender were of course integral to an individual’s self-definition but the film addressed the universal dimension of the important UN Declaration of Human Rights.  Simply: are alien intelligences (whether inferior or superior) subject to human rights if they take residence on Earth?  Or: is the “humanism” underlying human rights a principle above the mechanisms of individual humanity?

What is interesting about District 9 is precisely the way it essays the distinction between the idealism of humanism / human rights and the depths of humanity’s capability for insensitive, indifferent savagery – political reality.  District 9 uses Apartheid allegorically and its racial analogies are clearly and cleverly deployed to create what is the first film to truly examine the universality of (secular) humanism.  The first decade of the C20th saw efforts by religious institutions to re-write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so that it accepts the premise that humankind is endowed with such rights by God (as humanity is – to the religious mind – created in God’s image).  District 9 – without any reference whatsoever to religion – posits whether human rights apply to non-humans and thus are truly Universal, independent of any theist accountability imposed upon them

Over the course of the film, District 9 exposes a totalitarian authority essentially hamstrung by and side-stepping the democratic processes it considers itself superior to.  A militarized authority inherently places itself above human rights and operates through forced control and media manipulation (to demonize the protagonist as they hunt him down, authorities fake pictures of inter-species sex to smear him as immoral).  Hypocrisy is everywhere – the authorities deny human rights to the aliens (whom they term “prawns” because of their appearance) and exploit them, considering their lives insignificant – they are not “human”.  The protagonist’s unique situation is that as he is forced to seek their help, his institutional prejudice melts away and his humanity emerges: a simple man, his humanism emerges as his means to strength and in a highly symbolic ending, humanism triumphs regardless of physical form.

Coming after such insipid Bible-story inspired drek as the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, District 9 returns to science-fiction a humanist ethical speculation that makes for complex and resonant entertainment.  Importantly, it moves current science fiction away from simplistic end-of-the-world fantasies and towards contemplation of the intricacies and responsibilities of being human, and though unanswerable to theist ethics or morality seeks a truly universal definition of human rights.  By doing this within genre terms, District 9 emerges as modern cinema’s finest examination of humanist responsibility to the universal truths inherent in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, implications that science fiction as a genre has examined since the initial Planet of the Apes series, American screen’s first great Rationalist sci-fi epic.   ###

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