Monday, August 31, 2009

Truth Stranger Than Fiction

On Saturday night I watched District 9 and I am still completely blown away and speechless! What an amazing, action packed, convincing, serious, poignant, funny, relevant movie! It is hard to believe it was low-budget - even harder to believe it comes from here - what can I say? For me it was all those things - and for once, it makes me actually proud to be a Souf Efrikin - TREMENDOUSLY enjoyable!

For all the action, humor, emotion, thought provoking scenes and disturbingly familiar scenery, you could at first mistake it for yet another big-budget Hollywood production. This flight of fancy is immediately brought crashing down by the local Afrikaans accent of the unlikely hero of the piece, Wikus van de Merwe - who is about as much Terminator or action hero material as I am a ballet dancer or a chef, naked or otherwise. This is a watershed event. It tells the world that South Africa has arrived, in the field of cinema, as well as in other arenas where it is now taken for granted. These days it has become common place to hear local SA band's music on the international charts. Local actors have been making it in the UK and USA for some decades now, albeit controversially. But this is a significant achievement. Seldom have I watched a Hollywood offering where I couldn't predict the ending or wish it wasn't over yet - but any movie that leaves you already wondering when the sequel is coming out as you leave the cinema, has got to be good.

And yes, I got this all out of my experience of watching that movie. Hard to believe, but I got far more out of it than I did from the latest "Terminator", "X-Men" and "Harry Potter" offerings - all of which I enjoyed, incidentally. I think if there is an Oscar category for "most relevant movie of 2009", this one deserves it. Beyond a doubt.

Gone are the days where South African characters were portrayed as cardboard cut-outs with funny accents, often played by foreign actors, and controversial political hot-potato's of the Apartheid years. I can still remember watching a corny US TV show where the Soviet spies were supposed to be speaking Hungarian - and spoke perfect Afrikaans to each other! The action scenes and CGI were convincing, passable and realistic. About the most annoying thing for me in the entire movie was Wikus's kugel wife - who seemed to me a cross between a hippie-wannabe and a space cadet. Quite believable - she just needed a shiny 4x4 to clinch the deal. The bad guys are very believable too - and no, I wasn't referring to the equally convincing aliens, but the security force dudes who bragged that they actually get paid to kill "prawns" when they would gladly do it for free. The character accents - which admittedly make my Souf Efrikin ear cringe - compared to other stage-accents when speaking English, local-is-lekker Afrikaans accents have always raised my hackles a bit, ek se - probably because we are used to hearing people rip South Africans off for it. But not this time. And I suspect for the future, there will be quite a few people out there in Hollywood land now, who will have a different take on that oke from Jozi with his funny hairstyle and different manner of speaking. Ag, this is GREAT, man!

Mr van de Merwe starts out being "one of the okes", brow-bashing the "prawns" and not generally being a very nice guy. Although he doesn't actually kill any of them himself, and even objects to rough tactics, he certainly is part of the machine which reinforces the perception that they are not, nor deserving of, being equal. This all changes for him of course when he is exposed to a bio-chemical agent which causes his DNA to start converting him into one of them - and the whole machine turns on him. Of course, this inoffensive unintentionally bigoted Inspector Clueseau lookalike soon shows his true colors as a good sort deep down, who decides to help the aliens and even make some personal sacrifices along the way. At this point he now has the MNU security battalion and some pissed off (and convincing) Nigerian cat-food dealers after him. The only people not out to get him now are the aliens - and there is something particularly significant in this. Ironic? Weird? definitely - but now that he can actually use the aliens weapons and techno gear it becomes way cool! I heard one of the okes in my row giggle like a school-girl every time the microwave gun zapped one of the bad guys and he just went pfff! Just like that. Splat. Yes, it was good. Very good.

On a more serious level, District 9 makes me wonder how would people today deal with real alien refugees? I mean not just from Nigeria or Somalia, but from another world. Especially here in SA where we have emerged from Apartheid and segregation and our recent bout of xenophobia - how would those who survived these less admirable paragraphs in human history emerge - wiser? Or none the wiser? In the movie this thought is explored in gritty detail. The depths of our decency and moral goodness - or the lack of it - are explored to the point where you begin to realize that the term "humanity" or "inhumanity" are related more to the terms "good" and "bad" instead - and that goodness transcends language, culture, religion, color, race, sexuality, gender, species - and "humanity" - and there is the relevance.

I think modern society gives itself far too much credit for their enlightenment with the term "humanity". In essence society today is still the same as the earlier savage manifestations that committed mass murder and other savage acts and went to war over idiotic disagreements on religion or territory. You only have to look at ancient, medieval and modern European history to see how full of humanity we actually are, especially after the rise of religion as a political power. When it should have brought enlightenment and peace, it enacted oppression, superstition and war. It widened divisions between people in a way that only hatred and distrust can. Funny how modern adherents fail to recognize this connection between erasing the line separating church and state and violent oppression of individuality and freedom. But then, they are prone to fanaticism.

Despite this, there is much potential to outgrow such childishness - but we are not there yet - and then how will future generations remember us in two thousand years time? Will they laugh at us, for our arrogance and two dimensional lack of compassion or depth? Or cry over our shame, our stupidity, cruelty and folly, and for what might have been?

We crow about our technological advancement, our ability to split the atom and prowess to derive energy from it - or to make terrible weapons that flatter our destructive nature. We have the ability today to traverse the planets in our own star system, but where could we go to escape our dark nature without taking it with us? If we cannot even contain our inherent capacity for evil in our own playground, should we take our mayhem and vice with us into the universe?

Advanced weaponry, victories in battle and space travel do not an advanced species or civilization make.

If we cannot even understand the concept of all people being equal in the eyes of our own laws, if we cannot co-exist peacefully with each other now, how can we consider our species worthy of being called "civilized"? For we are not all equal. Some parts of society today - the backward and primitive parts, still insist on fostering a culture of "us" and "them" and on polarizing society around issues that belong in the cave-dwelling days of previous incarnations of our race. And they are the parts that hold us back, stubborn anchors stuck in the mire and drudgery of dark ages past, trying very, very hard to drag us back with them.

The old saying about "man's inhumanity to man" makes me think further about the relevance of the term "humanity". It is perfectly human to do bad things to each other, even typical. Animals will typically only do this to survive, to eat, to defend themselves, but they are not what we might call "sentient". What makes sentient beings special is the ability to act out of malice towards other beings - or to rise above such base behavior, and reach out in friendship, to care about other people whose lives do not affect them personally. To rise above being just human. To make a choice and strive to be good - the spark of the divine in all of us. This too is a human characteristic, and if anything, our one saving grace.


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