Before and After: Witus van de Merwe and District 9

Yufang and I watched District 9 two weekends ago, but I have only just now found the time to write about it. First, I want to begin by saying how much I enjoyed District 9. I was captivated by the story of Witus van de Merwe as a quasi-corporate/governmental/military bureaucrat, who was given a monumental job that leads to his transformation into the alien Other. I found the interesting thing about the film not that Witus uncovers insight into the Other’s plight, or that he wants to ‘do the right thing’ (e.g., Jake Sully in Avatar). Instead, Witus is presented as a naive, simple fellow who gets pushed around by physically and politically more powerful men (women are largely absent from the film except for the documentary-style explanations by professionals and interviews with his wife). The film allows the viewer to see how much racial hatred has seeped into the seemingly unsophisticated Witus. Before his transformation into prawn begins, he goes about his work with joy, but unlike the joy his tormentor, Col. Koobus, in the film displays. Koobus relishes the opportunity to kill prawns, while Witus believes that what he does is for the greater good (e.g., keeping down the population by ‘aborting’ prawn eggs, and enforcing the move from District 9 to District 10 outside Johannesburg, even if it takes deception and the false belief that prawns aren’t as smart as humans, especially mid-level bureaucrats). Witus is blind to the South African world that he inhabits, and it is the viewer’s experience to see what the character cannot. In the picture above, you can see Witus at the beginning of the film on the left, and at the end of the film on the right. You would think that he would have gained some insight into being othered through this amazing transformation, and it could be argued that at the very end during his face-to-face confrontation with Koobus he does, but in large part, there is still the sneaking suspicion that Witus never develops as a character besides his superficial appearance. This is not to say that this is necessarily a bad thing–it could be a brilliant stroke of genius, because it makes the audience admit the obvious thing that Witus cannot–namely, reviling Others seems to be an almost inescapable human condition. Even in South Africa, the prawns cannot be accepted into human society. Israel cannot meet in the middle with Palestinians over East Jerusalem, and America is, I believe, as far from a post-racial reality as we ever have been. Racist hatred shifts and transforms, ghost-like, into new forms to meet a new perceived threat to the supposedly homogeneous norm. The prawns are themselves an excellent example of how an Othered group of individuals are not necessarily homogeneous either. Christopher Johnson’s escape with his son from District 9 with the mothership illustrates that while he may plan on returning to save the others, this is not necessarily a certainty. We don’t know what he’s really going to do, but I think we are left with the understanding that he will return to help the others since he’s the only character that unwaveringly keeps his word (Witus lies repeatedly, and it is only when Koobus is about to kill Christopher Johnson that he turns in the exo-suit to save him and then works to return him to his boy).

Other thoughts on the film: Witus isn’t acting out against racism or oppression of the prawns. When he dons the prawn battle exo-suit, it is evident from what he says to the UNM forces that he isn’t going to be pushed around any longer. His new prawn DNA and the powers that it affords him to use their technology, interestingly technology that the prawns don’t seem to use against the humans (much), allows him to act against the humans who would rather like to cut him into little pieces for study. He is scared and he wants to get away. While he runs, he wants to hurt the humans who would hurt him. In this action, Witus is close to understanding the oppressed, the desire to act out against the oppressor, the user, the controller. Witus was not that long ago on the other side of the human/prawn dichotomy, but it seems like he doesn’t quite make the leap, as I’ve said, until possibly at the very end of the film. The actions of the other prawns against Koobus may be the event that finally makes Witus understand–that, and his living as one of them, longing for his wife-angel while making flowers with trash.

I believe that Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell wrote a very interesting and provocative story for District 9, and I believe that it can be a useful text in the classroom and in other venues where issues of race and cooperation are discussed. However, I would recommend you watch the special features including the interviews with the cast and crew. I take offense at Tatchell’s claim that the story was written without any political intention behind it. First, saying there are no politics behind District 9 is itself a political statement. Second, how can the director and co-writer, Blomkamp, say that it seemed interesting to place the film in post-apartheid South Africa without acknowledging the obvious parallel with racial hatred and oppression there? I realize that some movie-folk attempt to keep their work in the realm of ‘mere entertainment’, but it is ridiculous to make such claims about a film like District 9.

Read more about the film on Wikipedia here, and on the official film site here.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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