Monday, August 17, 2009

The Other: a film-inspired reflection

Thursday night / Friday morning. District 9, 12:01 showing.


Basic plot summary is aliens crash-land on our planet and can't get home. Humanity puts them into a camp/slum called District 9. (Hence the movie title.) Tensions ensue as the alien population rises, conditions worsen inside District 9, and human to non-human relations depreciate rapidly in parallel to said gross-poverty. Various illegal trades have sprung-up as myriad power-factions try to gain control of both the alien's technology, and District 9 itself.

What is notable about the movie is that the setting is not some major Western city like New York, Los Angeles, London, or Paris even - but Johannesburg, South Africa. This background only heightens the obviously prejudicial atmosphere between humans and non-humans. The correlation of the separation between the species and Apartheid is quite clear as the human character makes various ignorant, generalizing statements about the "Prawns" - a derogatory nickname based on their appearance (much as Africans were called "monkeys" by the Boers).

In the end though, similar to other science-fiction films such as Minority Report or The Island, our naive - hapless even - but otherwise normal protagonist is somehow changed in such a way as to pose a significant threat to the status-quo. Through acts of selfish interest, self-preservation, and eventual altruism based on understanding gained through the movement of plot, said John Q Protagonist saves the day by destroying the corrupt structures involved, though at the cost of sacrificing his own goals.

Altogether, this was a damned good movie, and I am glad Blomkamp had Peter Jackson around to help expand his original short, "Alive in Joburg", into a full-length feature.

After getting home, I couldn't help but think back to the first time I read "Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card. The presentation of prejudice & ignorance prevalent in the world of District 9 is remarkably similar to the concept seen throughout literature known as "The Other". And this led me to OSC's Hierarchy of Exclusion, from "Speaker for the Dead" where it was first espoused.

Let me break down the concept [paraphrased from source-book and Wikipedia]:

1. Utlanning: outlanders/foreigners of one's own species and one's own world (i.e. community or culture). An utlanning is a person who shares the observer's cultural identity. For example, if one were to meet a stranger who lived in another city, state, or province, this person would be considered utlanning.

2. Framling: members of one's own species but from another world or culture. (Literal "strangers.") This is a person who is both substantially similar to and significantly different from ourselves. For example, if one met another human who lived on Mars, this person would be a framling.

3. Ramen: strangers from another species who are capable of communication and peaceful coexistence with Homosapiens, though that does not guarantee they will pursue the latter. While ramen can share ideas with other ramen, they may not have common ground, at least not initially.

4. Varelse: strangers from another species who are not able to communicate with us. They are true aliens, completely incapable of common ground with humanity. One character also describes all animals as being varelse, since with them "no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes makes them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it."

5. Djur: are the monsters. "The dire beast that comes in the night with slavering jaws." They are completely unaware and feral, perceiving only instinctually.

This is the Hierarchy of Exclusion. In District 9, the aliens are clearly Ramen, being able to communicate (in fact many of the human characters speak their insectoid "clicking" language) but having different standards and modes of behavior.

The funny thing is though, that what determines a group's category in the Hierarchy is not any qualities they inherently posses, but rather our understanding of them. This is most obvious in the differences between Ramen and Varelse. Obviously if no one spoke the alien's language, they would be considered the latter, but due to learning their language (a change in us) we can communicate and find common-ground for mutual interactions, thus making them the former.

And the really funny thing is that what District 9 proposes by addressing the fluidity of these concepts via narrative is that in the end, we are ALL living entities possessed of the same qualities. (Albeit in unique, minute variations.) There is no exclusion, only skewed perception. Basically, by illustrating all the perceived differences between living beings as mere ignorance, Blomkamp has completely removed the need for any Hierarchy of Exclusion, not to mention fundamentally challenging the concept of "The Other". There is no "other"; there is only understanding or lack thereof. There is only "us".

I like that. It makes me hopeful for humanity's ability to grow, intellectually and emotionally.


After the movie, as I was walking through the parking garage on the way to my car , there was a long line of other people in their cars waiting to get out. A big black SUV was nearby me, and underneath the back-tire I saw a kitten, rolling along. It hadn't been run-over, but the fucking thing must've had a death-wish (or maybe it was just being a kitten) because it nearly did get crushed by the back-tire!

The kitten had a weird way of walking, like one - or both - of its back-legs were broken. Yet it wasn't mewing in pain... just flopping around on the ground. I almost walked off, leaving it to whatever fate the parking-garage had for lil' kits. But, goddamn, the cute-factor. It pulled my heart-strings... And apparently other people's too, because just as I went back, some random guy ran by me and grabbed the thing. He asked everyone in their cars in the line if it belonged to them. Nobody seemed to own it, so he took the thing into his car with his friends, and they left.

I hope they adopt it, or at least take it to an animal shelter.

You had to be there, but the whole thing was SO SAD!

Times like those almost make consider vegan/vegetarianism... Almost.

2 footnotes:

FunkyStarkitty50 said...

Sounds like an interesting movie--I may go check it out. The last part of your entry kind of touched me, mainly because I'm such a cat lover.I hope that kitten did find a safe place. Is that picture of you and a cat?? If so, great legs....

Zek J Evets said...

@funky: no, that's not me, haha. that's just a picture i found off the internet, to illustrate my point about how sad it was, haha.