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District 9

Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Review by Tony Sheppard

Sitting at the Number 1 spot in this week’s box office rankings and modestly masquerading as a relatively low-budget creature feature, “District 9” is brought to you in a hands-off way by producer Peter Jackson (the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy).

I say masquerading, as it’s really quite an insightful commentary on politics and international power-brokering, both past and current. The story has aliens arriving over Johannesburg, complete with their clearly superior technology and weaponry but also with a broken spaceship and apparently no intergalactic towing service. This results in two outcomes – a giant refugee camp for the stranded “prawns, “as they become known, and a great desire to crack the potentially lucrative mystery of their guns, which don’t operate in human hands. The film unfolds in the style of a news story or reality TV show, as we watch a mid-level manager undertake the manipulative relocation of 1.8 million refugees from their longstanding slum environment to a new purpose-built tent city.   

But what is most noteworthy is the effective way that the film reflects our treatment of not just refugees, but people who we deem unworthy of integration. Being set in South Africa, it’s impossible to watch the movie and not think of Apartheid. But it also looks like a cross between Gaza and any number of shanty towns worldwide, with a trapped population driven to desperation in the face of a complete lack of opportunity. It’s also uncomfortably believable to watch the policing of this fictional environment being performed not by the quasi-UN-type organization depicted, but by a multi-national company of mercenaries and arms manufacturing  who clearly have a greater vested interest in the hidden arsenal than in the well-being of the prawns.

Like the best of the genre, this is science fiction against a backdrop of our political and social vulnerabilities and shortcomings. The aliens and their city-sized cosmic-utility-vehicle may be hard to believe, but the humans and their actions are all too real. “District 9” is the best sci-fi of the year, with more thought-provoking content than four years at Starfleet Academy—and without all the financial aid.

Ask Not

Directed by Johnny Symons
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

This column would hardly be the first place to note that the early days of the Obama presidency are starting to look like those of the last Democrat to hold the White House, Bill Clinton. That is, each has been dogged by controversies around campaign promises to overhaul healthcare and end the ban on gay people serving openly in the U.S. military.

Obama seems to be making more headway on healthcare than Clinton—maybe because you can actually trust him at a rally with a stage full of nurses (yes, I stole that)—but he still seems to be stuck in the same quagmire around the latter issue.

This 55-minute documentary, made by Oakland-based studio Persistent Visions and shown recently on PBS, traces efforts to end the ban. One key question “Ask Not” takes on whether Clinton didn’t pay enough attention to military tradition, as has often been argued, or whether he was too deferential. As one person interviewed in “Ask Not” notes, Harry Truman desegregated the military with an executive order, then invited any military brass who objected to turn in their resignations.

Much of the story here comes in numbers: the 54 gay Arab linguists forced out in the months leading up to 9/11, the over 300 language specialists forced out since, the more than 12,000 gays eliminated under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the 4,200 convicted felons who were allowed into the armed forces since the Iraq War has started, and the huge growth in rates of acceptance of gays, including among the military rank-and-file. 

But it also tells a very human story. The most effective stories are those of actual gay service-members, especially a young gay couple who are both recent combat veterans. In culture and appearance, the pair fit the standard image of soldiers—stocky and muscular, conservative in dress and behavior, and coming out of working class rural families.

The film also shows numerous sit-ins at military recruiting centers conducted by the gay rights group SoulForce. These protestors make the relevant point that the military is essentially the last government institution that can carry out discrimination that would probably be unconstitutional for anyone else. But for those who identify with the military, these scenes may seem less sympathetic—partially due to the many shots of harried recruiters, who don’t make the policy in the first place, trying to deal with them.

You also get the impression that many of those allegedly wanting to join the armed forces wouldn’t be trying if the ban weren’t in place.

They seem uniformly middle class and mostly out-of-shape. It seems snide to notice, but I couldn’t help thinking of the gender integration of The Citadel, the venerable military academy in my home state of South Carolina. The woman chosen by civil libertarians looking to file a lawsuit, Shannon Faulkner, was in terrible physical condition and washed out inside of a week. But she was soon replaced by women who were also accepted at the major military academies, and the issue quickly faded. By the same token, a more effective protest might be a sit-in by muscle-bound gays and lesbians in “I bash back” t-shirts—in other words, people who look like they’d make it through basic training.


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