A brief viewer's guide to what 'District 9' can tell Americans about occupying Iraq, Afghanistan

District 9 is a rare cinematic experience. At least twice during the movie, I broke the no talking rule, and said out loud: “This film is ******* crazy.” I meant it as a compliment.

Obviously, I’m not alone. District 9 debuted number one at the box office, and cleared 37 million over the weekend. The reviews of Neill Blomkamp’s first film have been equally outstanding. Almost all mention–and try to grapple with–the many layers of political satire, naturally focusing on the South African allegory. Salon headlined an interview with Blomkamp: “Is apartheid acceptable–for giant bugs?” The Hollywood Reporter mentioned the “trenchant political undertones;” the LA Times called it a “scathing social satire;” and the New York Times noted that “the film’s implications extend far beyond the boundaries of a particular nation, which is taken as more or less representative of the planet as a whole.”

So I want to take a second to discuss of few of those “implications,” especially as it relates to America and the two countries where we currently find ourselves dealing with a hostile and alien population(though, of course, we’re kind of the aliens there.)

Yes, I know, I’m viewing this through my own Iraq/Afghan deranged prism. And I don’t know how explicitly Iraq and Afghanistan were on the brain of Blomkamp when he wrote the film. But it’s hard to see how they weren’t: we are treated to private military contractors, live cable news coverage of conflict, house to house searches for weapon caches (counterinsurgency tactics!), self interested plans under the guise of humanitarian aims, and the like. All familiar images to Americans, and easily translated to our experience in the Middle East and Central Asia over the past nine years. This probably makes the critique more powerful–if you make a movie that attacks the absurdity of the occupation in Iraq too directly, you can end up with an unsatisfying result(see, War Inc.) The potential downside, though, is that one can dismiss the films implications by saying, “Oh, we’re not as bad as those South Africans!”

Here’s the thing: we all are.

The brilliance of the film is that the audience starts to sympathize with the aliens, slurred as “prawns,” the Other. But in the real world, where we actually live, most of us don’t sympathize with the prawns. We don’t care much for prawns, in fact.

While watching the movie, we like to think that in real life we’d  be cheering for the hero, Wickus van der Mere, and his escape and triumph over the nefarious corporate and government powers. But if we’re going to be honest, real life tells us that that the majority of us would be rooting for the removal of the aliens and the swift and comforting capture of the fugitive Wickus. It’s kind of an uncomfortable realization, but we humans have a way proving it again and again and again.

For Americans, we’re proving it in how we view/treat the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the things that people don’t really like to mention is that our policies towards Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally racist, xenophobic, and near one hundred percent colonial in attitude. Our government’s language is teeming with condescension when discussing Iraqis and Afghans, as if they’re not quite complete humans, child-like, and certainly not really civilized. Their lives are not valued as much as Western life–in economic terms (the families of Iraqis or Afghan who get accidentally killed during get a payout of around $3000; the family of a Westerner, military or civilian, who gets killed will get around $500,000) and in how we process the daily death totals. (Politicians always mention the 4,500 Americans who’ve died in Iraq, but rarely give more than perfunctory acknowledgment to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.)

The very metaphor for our strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is so casually offensive that it’s somewhat astounding that it passes through our lips without comment. Usually it’s summed up by American officials like so: “The Iraqis are on a bicycle and we’re holding the bicycle seat until they’re ready, so we can let go.” Or: “It’s like we have training wheels on their bicycles, and we can leave once we take the training wheels off.” Imagine describing any other group of adults like that: Blacks, Latinos, the Irish, women, etc. It would create a certain amount of feigned outrage, to be sure.

Back to District 9. Here are four scenes to watch for that could easily have taken place in Baghdad or Khost–watching them, I had the strange sensation that I’d actually been there when they happened!

  • SCENE 1: The MNU wants to evict the Aliens to another location, so they need to take a census of District 9. We follow our bumbling bureaucrat Wickus, as he gives us a tour of the the alien culture. The Aliens are somewhat skeptical of having to sign the forms that are being handed over to them.  PERSONAL FLASHBACK: Summer of 2006, Baghdad. I was with a group of American soldiers whose job it was to go house to house to take a census!!! One token Iraqi police officer was with us. The Iraqis reacted much like the prawns, many refusing to give fill out the paper work. ABSURD MORAL LESSON: Under the guise of good intentions(we need to take an accurate census to promote democracy) the information collected was also being used to hunt for and find our enemies..
  • SCENE 2: Wickus is trying to make nice with the Alien child. He throws a candy to the kid to win his favor. The kid throws the candy back at Wickus, hitting him in the face. PERSONAL FLASHBACK: This was the most hilarious moment in the movie for me. It was a scene I’d witnessed dozens of times: American soldiers handing out candy to Iraqi and Afghan children; the children, because they’re children, take the candy eagerly. The Americans feel good about themselves because the children respond to them in a way the adults(who may not like them very much) rarely do. ABSURD MORAL LESSON: Having the alien kid throw the candy back at Wickus is a moment that just about sums up the delusions of the occupier; it shatters the soothing fiction that just because kids are happy to see them and get candy, it doesn’t mean that they’re well liked, or that what they’re doing isn’t actually quite traumatic to the community.
  • SCENE 3: Wickus interrogates the alien protagonist, who refuses to sign the census. Wickus whispers to the camera(paraphrasing here): “This one is a bit sharper.” PERSONAL FLASHBACK: I invite the readers to go witness an American official question an Iraqi or Afghan in Afghanistan, and you’ll see what I mean. ABSURD MORAL LESSON: We almost always assume that the Other, the Iraqis or Afghans, are not going to be really switched on. Therefore, when you find a “clever one,” it’s quite a surprise.
  • SCENE 4: As Wickus continues on his house to house search of District 9, he keeps celebrating the discovery of weapons caches, an MNU obsession. PERSONAL FLASHBACK: The U.S. military is obsessed with finding weapons caches. The houses/shacks in District 9, littered with trash and junk, could be found in many a third world city where Westerners with guns dare to tread. ABSURD MORAL LESSON: You can keep finding the guns, but there’s always going to be more guns because as we confiscate weaponry we also flood the countries we’re occupying with weaponry. (Not an exact parallel to the movie, but MNU, we’re told, has a particular passion for these alien weapons.)

Okay, I’ve rambled for too long on this. Just to finish with this thought: somehow, a sci-fi movie about aliens in South Africa managed to get at the wars the U.S. are fighting in a way that no other movie I’ve seen–even those that have dealt direclty with Iraq or Afghanistan–has managed to do.


About michaelhastings

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4 Responses to A brief viewer's guide to what 'District 9' can tell Americans about occupying Iraq, Afghanistan

  1. andygeiger says:

    Dead on Michael. Good job citing examples to remind us… We are all employees of MNU!

    D9 was Incredible sci-fi. An art i was deeply worried about after those two brain dead toy movies this summer.

  2. Mr. Hastings,

    Thank you for that review. When I saw the ads, I thought, “So they remade ‘Alien Nation'” but it sounds like it was much more than that. I guess I am going to have to see it now (which I was not planning on doing having already seen Alien Nation'”.

  3. Pingback: Brontides » Blog Archive » It’s been a while since I posted…

  4. joeh says:

    Well done Michael, I think you make some excellent points here. Particularly who we root for in the film versus the way our sympathies lie (or don’t lie) when presented with something similar in real life.

    Unfortunately while I really appreciated some of the issues the film took up, in the end I thought it reinforced more stereotypes then it satired.

    The “redemption” of Wickus was improbable but more to the point I thought Christopher Johnson was portrayed in a very derogatory “noble savage” type way. An honest man, incapable of deception (even when it is clear Wickus is unable to handle the truth without freaking out) and then willing to sacrifice 1.5 million of his fellow aliens in order to save his “master”. Haven’t seen a review yet that is anything other then glowing with praise for the film which I think points out a lot of our privileged prejudices…

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