Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is there anything to be learned from District 9?

I have read and re-read Ato Quayson’s eloquent critique of District 9 several times and I can only agree whole-heartedly with his assessment of the representation of Nigerians in the film and what it tells us about the enduring stereotyping of Africa and Africans in general in Western thought. However, being Arab and Muslim, I’ve become quite accustomed, it is sad to say, to such negative portrayals in film and have made a conscious decision to ignore it, if only so I could go beyond the frustration and anger at being constantly represented as either a mindless terrorist or a mindless woman, and try to understand what, if anything, these films can tell us about the world we live in.

Popular culture, Bakhtine has shown us, is quite extraordinary in the way it manages to depict and put forth extremely complex issues to a wide audience, even subvert the way they are handled by powerful actors, by resorting sometimes to the most crude and vulgar tools and stereotypes. So what I usually do, these days, is turn off temporarily my critique of these vulgarities, because I’ve become frustrated with the impasse they often lead to. Where do you go after all of these relations of power and distorted representations have been deconstructed? Well if you’re a film-maker, then you make your own films and Nigeria, while simultaneously being villainized in South African films, has also produced the 3rd largest film industry in the world. But if you’re someone who makes a living analyzing societies, then continuing to critique quickly becomes unsatisfying as things rarely change to the better.

So with District 9, I found myself going beyond the identity politics the film obviously exploited and thinking about a completely different subject that I thought was brilliantly portrayed in a film of this genre, that is the question of humanism in our post-genetic, biotechnological, and biopolitical world. It is an issue that I’ve become keenly aware of thanks mainly to professor Gilles Bibeau, medical anthropologist, who has written and thought much about this issue and for whom I still work on occasion as a research assistant (see Bibeau, G. Le Québec Transgénique, 2004). But before I get to this issue, a word on the form the film took and the tools that are used to transmit its principal message, which in my opinion goes beyond the relation with the Other.

First, I was struck by its construction as a documentary and the role the talking heads play in the documentary, including intellectuals and social scientists, who are trying to make sense, or actually explain to the audience what actually happened. Here, the film is not only giving itself a pedagogical vocation, but also introducing within its intrigue the fact that the story and the discourse built around the story are inseparable. That truth and fiction go hand in hand. The involvement and motivations of those telling the story are ambiguous at best. How involved were the sociologists in the terrible turn of events? Where is the dividing line between observation and participation, between baring witness and using observation as an alibi to do nothing? The reference to realty-TV in contemporary societies is also quite clear. When the displacement of the aliens is ordered, it is done with cameras on hand. All of a sudden, the violent nature of the project of displacement, rather than be exposed to the audience through the presence of the camera, turn it into a video-game. However, soon the sense of false security the presence of the camera introduces, the virtual reality it invites the spectator to delve in through its presence evaporates as the violence becomes all too real and its consequences irreversible through the lead character’s ingestion of the alien’s bio-based fuel. The lead character asks for the scene where he is exposed to the biological fluid to be cut, as if cutting it from the film would make the event actually disappear. However, he soon finds out the there is still some ugly and consequential reality in reality TV as he begins to transform.

By introducing the documentary form, and the camera as witness, the film is asking to be read at various levels, from the most superficial to the most analytical, and through multiple lenses.

Second, I was taken aback by the way the film took words drenched in symbolic imagery but that have been gradually reduced to euphemisms in public discourse and re-invested them with their full meaning by taking away their metaphoric coating and re-using them literally, au pied de la letter, as we say in French, nakedly, through raw anti-semiotic aesthetics, and through revolting, fleshy, bare-life violence. For example the word “alien”, which is used without batting an eye in the United States to describe immigrants whether legal or not, and that has slowly crept into Canadian immigration discourse as well, is given its full meaning by turning immigrants and refugees in the film literally into aliens from another planet – ugly, needy, scary, completely dehumanized aliens. The same goes to the proverbial “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, when sympathy, charity and humanity lead to refugees being reduced to victims, unable to think for themselves, infantilized, and when they behave badly, re-inscribed in the imaginary, as savages. In the same way, charity looses its aura as it is shown as an essentially egotistical and narcissistic act that is more about making the one “being generous” feel better about himself than about actually helping a fellow being. “The world was watching Johannesburg, so we couldn’t afford to get this wrong, not to help, not to be generous, humane, shelter these disgusting creatures, etc.” one of the characters says (I’m paraphrasing here). It is this form of egocentric and selfish charity that makes it impossible for those involved in the humanitarian project to actually meet and get to know those among the aliens who were scientists, philosophers, etc. They were all seen as victims and so incapable of anything but receiving aid. In the same way, humanitarian aid, coupled with the discourse on militarized security are shown for what they really are, in essence, as contemporary incarnations of the final solution: those who are deemed Other, and who are unexploitable by society in capitalistic terms as Others – here I refer to Achille Mbembe’s talk on the poor being increasingly turned into superfluous people – can only be put under control and reduced to bare survival in concentration camps.

The same technique of turning metaphors into literal reality, is also used on a conceptual level. Biotechnology is no longer portrayed as this highly asepticized endeavour that takes place in clean, slick laboratories, or under a microscope. It is not represented as the triumph of humanity over its own mortality or biological limitations, through the spirit of innovation, invention, curiosity – all that makes us human. It is revealed to be the ultimate form of biopolitics, the symbol of the rise of savage capitalism to its highest and most sophisticated form, that which commoditizes and uses bodies, biology, as its primary material. Mining for exploitable bio-information from alien bodies with the refugee camp as the principal mine, and mercenaries being deployed for fetching the bodies and protecting the premises of the bio-industrial company, just as multinationals, many of which are Canadian, funded by Canadian taxes and billions of dollars of government subsidies, continue to mine Africa to its bare bones using Africans as dispensable labour and arming local militias to the teeth to protect the companies’ mining interests.

But beyond that, biotechnology loses its gloss, as it is quite literally portrayed as the fusion of flesh in its most animalistic form, with its bodily fluids, to metal in places that, in the end, look more like slaughter houses than scientific laboratories. On the one hand aliens are reduced to commodities for bio-industrial exploitation and on the other, biotechnology and the biopolitics that ensue from it, bring about that most taboo of acts – cannibalism. As if reaching the ideal of the post-genetic, biotechnical human can only be achieved through devouring one’s own humanity until all that is left is its pre-human animal bare-life form – primary material par excellence, ready to be exploited and consumed. Cannibalism here is not only shown to be something done by Nigerians, but also as a form of industry, as the father-in-law of the lead character in the film, a powerful bio-industrial CEO, is glad to inflict the most horrifying procedures on his son-in-law, without even an attempt at providing anaesthesia, when he recognizes the bio-industrial and military-industrial value of his son-in-law’s morphing body and the necessity to act quickly before it completely transforms. It is a fundamental rupture in kinship with the son-in-law as a fellow human being, and as a relative, that is again portrayed quite literally through the physical transformation of the son-in-law to a complete Other, an alien no less, which allows the father-in-law to torture him as long as he can extract biological data from his body to use for making bioweapons. Capitalism in this scene is portrayed as the ultimate form of cannibalism. Cannibalism for the 21st century.

As for the relation to the Other, may be it is the fact that I watch the film as an outsider to South Africa’s palpable racialized daily reality, but I thought first and foremost of how the arrival of the ultimate Other, literally an alien, irreversibly transforms a society, whether it likes it or not, and that transformation continues even after this Other leaves. Transformation, a loaded word in the South African context, does not necessarily lead to something better, the film seems to tell us, although the lead character, is redeemed through his transformation. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the lead character’s metamorphosis and Kafka’s short story with the same title (Kafka, F. The metamorphosis, 1972), considering that, even though the talking heads in the film are curious about what could’ve happened to the lead character, whether he was dead or alive, an alien or not, things seemed to return to their original order as the aliens were moved to another camp. Just like in Kafka’s story, the metamorphosis in the end had no impact on the system in place, only on two individuals, the alien scientist who managed to escape with his son and the lead character who seems in the end to have grown accustomed to his new form of life, while remaining nostalgic to his former self. We are in the realm of tolerance here, no more, no less.

Is this film a commentary on the politics of transformation in South Africa? A politics that have not necessarily righted the wrongs of apartheid, but only changed the terms of the same racialized relations of power, while bringing about a new scapegoat for racial violence, as we have seen in the 2008 xenophobic attacks on refugees? Even worse, was the refugee camp turned to concentration camp meant to portray the ultimate finality of the politics of transformation? It is hard to tell although quite disturbing to think about… considering that the refugee ends up leaving, and the lead character, an Afrikaner, ends up finding redemption while things stay essentially the same for most who live in the refugee camp…

These are some of the reflections that came to me as I watched District 9. Regardless of the needless caricatures of the Nigerians and the racial undertones Quayson rightfully exposed, there is much there, I think, to reflect on.

Yara El-Ghadban, Université de Montréal