(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.