Wednesday, November 11, 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.