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On District 9: Hollywood, Political War, and Prawns

(In a break from our usual programming, On Violence is talking Academy Awards for the next four days. Today Michael C tackles "District 9." Tomorrow we'll discuss the highest grossing film of all time, "Avatar." Thursday we'll have a "The Hurt Locker" review and and link drop, and Friday we'll tear "Inglorious Basterds" a new one.)

Oscar has war on the mind. Avatar, District 9, Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker are all vying for best picture, and unlike the last time the Academy voted for war films--in 1998 when Saving Private Ryan took on The Thin Red Line and Life is Beautiful--these films cover more than World War II. As a Soldier, I've made it a point to see each one.

One film rose above the rest to capture the emotions of deploying to a foreign country. From the frustration of Soldiers dealing with unruly inhabitants to the sound of the weapons, this film depicted what I felt and heard on my tour in Afghanistan better than the rest.

That film wasn't The Hurt Locker. It was District 9.

Now, don't call me racist, I don't think Afghans are space aliens. The Hurt Locker may have earned a higher metacritic score because of its realism, but District 9 captures the nature of political war better.

In a tour de force first thirty minutes, the protagonist Wikus Van de Merwe, an official working for Multi-National United, has to convince the alien settlers of District 9 to sign contracts acknowledging their impending evictions. To do so, he embarks out in a convoy, riding in MRAPs almost identical to the ones I used in Afghanistan with a personal security detail and helicopters buzzing overhead. Van de Merwe encounters sympathetic aliens, hostile aliens, crime, weapons caches, and violence. He speaks in the loud, dismissive tone used by English speakers to foreigners, gives out humanitarian assistance, calls for a MEDEVAC, and has to call in a QRF. He might as well join a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan.

What else does District 9 get right?

The Media: Yep the film starts as a mockumentary, and then intercuts clips from 24 hours news networks. In real time. Just like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cultural misunderstandings: Inter-species misunderstanding in District 9 is a metaphor for cultural misunderstanding. The prawns don't understand ownership of property, and Americans don't understand Pashtun-Wali code.

Rules of Engagement: Van de Merwe calls out an armed contractor for carrying too many rounds. We've written about ROEs here.

Information operations: The speaker inside the MRAP reminds its passengers that a "smile is cheaper than a bullet..when dealing with the prawns be tough but firm." Before we left the wire, I always admonished my guys to be nice but firm with Afghans around our vehicles.

Dehumanizing the Enemy: They call the aliens prawns. We call Arabs and Afghans "haji" or "hajj."

Military Contractors: In this case, they call them Multi-National United. We call them KBR, or Blackwater.

I don't think anyone doubts that this is what would happen if aliens from another planet parked an spaceship over Johannesburg. With refugees comes crime, unemployment, humanitarian disasters, and racially charged emotions. This film isn't about aliens; it's about humans. It isn't about spaceships, science fiction and special effects; it's about real world issues.

Mainly, District 9 gets the emotions of war right. The unjustness, the arbitrariness, the anger, the anxiety. District 9 pulls the right chords; it is the movie I wished The Hurt Locker was. It also somehow gets the details right too. For instance, in the middle of a shootout, I closed my eyes. I felt the sound of the bullets. It reminded me of both my training and my deployment to Afghanistan. I wrote about this in December in relation to Black Hawk Down, that the sounds of war are often more evocative than the images. (I am sure the smells would bring me back but we don't have Smell-o-Vision. Yet.)

Most Soldiers will see The Hurt Locker and Avatar, and many will miss District 9. This is too bad.

twelve comments

If I had to complain about District 9, I would complain about the last quarter of the film. It turns into an action film, which I enjoyed, but i could see that as a bit distracting.

Nevertheless, I loved it. Perfect sci-fi as an analogy for the real world.

Good review and commentary. Interesting to hear this from a soldier, too.

I really liked District 9 for the real-world and cultural issues. I work with indigenous communities here in British Columbia so the Aboriginal and community element struck a cord with me.

Cultural misunderstandings and settling with ignorance leads to unnecessary stress (and perhaps death and war) for all sides.

I agree with Eric on the last few minutes. When watching though, the depiction of how the aliens were treated and dealt with did seem fairly realistic. Great insight Michael. Is District 9 a better picture than Up though? I say no.

District 9 isn’t better than the first montage in up, but it is better than Up overall. Avatar is better than Up too.

Regarding the action scene, it is a great final thirty minutes.

Very true about smells and sounds… they are so much more difficult to shut out than vision!

Now here’s a really provocative one:
Are you really sure that humans are not aliens?!
Yep, I know Darwin… still not everybody shares that point of view and think about the geological history of earth… do you really think this planet has never been nuked before?!

I’d have to say yes, until proven otherwise.

Alright, that’s understandable.
But do you remember what Einstein said how a fourth world war would be fought? What weapons would be used?

“Sticks and stone.”

Right, Matty.
So and who’s to say that we haven’t already been in a couple of rounds of that fight? Just because we got knocked out and can’t remember?

I’m not saying your theory isn’t plausible. I’m just saying I’d like to see fossil evidence. I wouldn’t be surprised if 10,000 years from now mankind has to re-rise from a nuclear holocaust, I just think there would be some archeological evidence.

You’re right.
And for those who want to see it, they just have to look in the right places. It is there.
I remember when I was at school (about 200 years ago :-)!)…
anyway, I went to this totally fancy school – the intellectual center of that particular country! But theories changed so quickly, there were discoveries all the time, but because our teachers weren’t normal teachers, but all had a doctor grade (higher than a PH.D.) and other titles like that, they had spent so much time at school/university that once they were done with the sour duty they didn’t feel much like staying up-to-date on their subjects… So what they taught was old news – ancient theories. Actually I’m surprised they didn’t tell us the world was flat!
I remember some of the ideas I had… they just laughed right into my face. Yet it did turn out, I was right, these are all acknowledged discoveries today. NASA wasn’t quite as blind as our teachers.
So it’s there Eric, you just gotta look for it, if it’s important to you.
And I would not only go for fossil evidence, but for radiation and look at what rather obvious marks there actually are left on the earth.

And since you guys are talking movies and aliens, I really thought “War of the worlds” had a really good message. And that’s how fast it sometimes goes. It’s something you don’t think of at all, a little fungus or a germ or a weapon you can’t imagine from your POV right now. It can go very, very fast and could be over within minutes before anyone really knows what has happened. Just perfect overwhelm – and that’s it!
And that’s also why I personally am not against all that stuff being classified, because there is no need for the public to worry about it at all – there is too much other crap like that that they can get excited about anyway… and they can always find a new conspiracy theory and another wild idea on the net if they really want to.

Sophia, you pose many interesting points questions. I too was a fan of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” His conclusion about the nature of humanity’s tie to even the smallest life on this planet was intriguing. As far as previous nuclear disaster, from my studies of evolutionary biology, I’ve found nothing to suggest that humanity or any previous species used nukes prior to those dropped on Japan. Fossil records and geological data does suggest multiple astroid strikes that are classified as “global killers,” which can result in fallout similar to nuclear war, sparing the massive amounts of resulting radiation.