Aliens and Townships: District 9 (2009)

The library where I work has a huge South Africa exhibit up at the moment. It’s been almost 20 years to the day since Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa on April 27, 1994, and twenty years of democracy is a huge milestone for the young nation. Accompanying the exhibit is a complementary 6-week film series, and wouldn’t you know, but I’ve decided to participate in earnest! So, for the next five Thursdays, check back for reviews of the following films: A Dry White Season, Cry the Beloved Country, Red Dust, Tsotsi, and Invictus.

Last night’s film was, of course, the sci-fi flick District 9.

District 9 poster

I’ve seen District 9 once before–something like 6 or 7 years ago. All I remembered was that it was very violent and gory. In the intervening years, I had the opportunity to spend two months in South Africa in 2011. Now, I’m not claiming that spending 8 weeks in a country makes me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely did help me understand the film better.

The primary metaphor in District 9 is so obvious that it hardly even seems metaphorical. Aliens descend on Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, and are stranded because they lack sufficient fuel to power their spaceship. The humans are horrified by the part metal, part beetle creatures who feast on meat and live in a state of permanent squalor. A decision is made to let the aliens–derogatorily deemed “prawns”–set up a temporary camp in District 9 just outside of the city. Eventually, though, the locals decide that they’re tired of the aliens living next door, and the South African government hires a private military contractor, Multinational United (MNU), to forcibly relocate them to a new internment camp. That’s where the gormless and cowardly Wikus van de Merwe steps in.

District 9 Wikus van de Merwe

Hired into a swanky position because of who his wife’s father is (hello, racism-fueled nepotism), van de Merwe is assigned the monumental and predictably violent task of “legally” evicting the aliens from their homes in District 9. What this essentially means is: 1). Show up in a bulletproof vest flanked by two military contractors with machine guns; 2). force the aliens to sign a document stating they’ve been given a 24-hour evacuation notice (hint: they haven’t); and 3). threaten to abduct the alien’s children if they refuse to cooperate, smiling deceitfully the entire time.

District 9

Of course, there’s lots of arbitrary shooting and ethically horrifying violence. The scene where van de Merwe pulls the plug on a series of incubating alien fetuses is particularly gruesome. The evacuation in District 9 was intended to mimic the series of events in District 6 in Cape Town in the 1970s. District 6 was a township (a.k.a. shantytown, a.k.a. informal settlement, a.k.a. imijondolo) in the heart of the city that occupied prime real estate. Predictably, the apartheid government decided that whites should have that land. They manufactured a series of excuses for vacating the district–gambling, drinking, violence, prostitution–and 60,000 mostly coloured residents were forcibly removed to the Cape Flats township a suitable distance away from the city. Does this sound familiar or what?

There are also a couple of notable allusions to Nazi Germany. At one point, van de Merwe admits that the new internment area for the aliens is essentially a “concentration camp,” and the horrifying biological/medical experiments that the scientists at Multinational United perform on the prawns are reminiscent of the Nazi human experiments unearthed during the Nuremberg trials.

“Alien” has long been used as a derogatory term to divide humans into upper and lower classes. Xenophobic Americans often describe undocumented Mexican immigrants as “illegal aliens,” thus suggesting that they are lower humans undeserving of citizenship, or worse–not humans at all. So with that in mind, why not make a science fiction film with, literally, aliens as a stand-in for all discriminated peoples? The aliens in District 9 are clearly supposed to be coloured and black South Africans, whom the apartheid government treated like second- and third-class citizens. Carrying the metaphor further is their supposedly disgusting appearance and reliance on raw meat for sustenance, which leads to further discrimination based on appearance and cultural practices. And of course, the irony is that the aliens in District 9 are brilliantly technologically minded, with advanced biological weaponry that humans can only marvel at.

I’m sorry to say, though, that the shantytown District 9 bears an uncanny resemblance to many townships that I saw when I was in the country. Let us remember that dirt, disease, and lack of facilities are symptoms of poverty, and not inherent qualities of the poor. I can’t tell you how often I still see iterations of that awful, outdated argument, where poor people are blamed for their own poverty because of their supposed lack of morals.

District 9 township

Here’s a screenshot from District 9

shack settlement, Jo'burg

And here’s one I took through the window of a bus while passing through the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Let’s look at that again. District 9…

District 9 "yard"

And a picture I took in Soweto in 2011. (This was where the movie was filmed, incidentally).

Soweto

I’m not trying to shame the country or anything like that (heck, my examples of the faulty thinking surrounding poverty were pulled from the U.S.), but it’s important to remember that while one huge battle was won in 1994, the struggle still continues. And not just in South Africa, either–it’s a question of humane treatment of humans all across the globe. As one film reviewer put it succinctly, “Substitute ‘black,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Mexican,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘Jew,’ or any number of different labels for the word ‘prawn’ in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue” (Chris Mikesell of Ka Leo). 

On top of all the well-executed, thinly veiled social criticism, District 9 is a solidly produced, well-acted, and exciting film. The fact that it grossed over $200 million on a $30 million budget is a victory all its own.  I think it’s difficult even for someone with zero knowledge of South African history not to grasp that something important is happening, that the very viability of human decency is at stake. All in all, it’s an even better film than I remembered, and its creativity and social importance make it a contemporary sci-fi classic, if there can even be such a thing. Who would have guessed that aliens and townships were such a compelling combination?

Overall grade: A-

Foggy Pier & Beach

On Saturday, it was 80 degrees and I played tennis outside. On Sunday, a thick wave of fog rolled in from Lake Michigan, enshrouding buildings,  coiling around trees and lampposts. Then last night it started snowing. Flurries in the middle of April? There’s no such thing as strange weather in Chicago.

Yellow boat

I find fog delightful. There’s something comforting about its haziness; you get the sense that you can hide among the closely-packed water droplets. It also reminds me, however vaguely, of when I lived in California. Sometimes the fog would get so thick that you could barely make out the houses across the street. And once, when driving home in Illinois, a fog storm rolled in, and I had to concentrate on the bright yellow line on the side of the road to avoid succumbing to the mist.

Waves, pier, sand

If you’re not referring to the weather, “fog” takes on another connotation–one of bewilderment, confusion, and uncertainty. But that’s not how chilly mist makes me feel; if anything, fog has a clarifying effect on my mind. Perhaps it’s because you have no choice but to pause and wonder at the whipped vapor that calmly diffracts the light, casting a gentle pallor over everything. Fog is a break from sunshine, from rain, from snow and sleet and storms.

Beach look 500x 300 pixelsl

And so there I am, staring out over Lake Michigan, breathing in the drizzled air and wondering where lake meets sky.

All photos by G. 

 

Roger Mello, Brazilian Illustrator and Winner of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award!

*click each image to view full size

At long last, I have the pleasure of introducing–or perhaps re-affirming your existing knowledge of–the brilliant, creative, and immensely talented Roger Mello.  The Brasília native and socially-conscious illustrator has made history by becoming the first artist from Latin America to win the highly-coveted Hans Christian Andersen Award,  conferred biennially by the International Board on Books for Young People. Known as the Nobel prize of children’s literature, the Andersen Award ensures long-term recognition of an artist’s work, and grants a degree of legitimacy that–in a still-overlooked field–can significantly improve an author or illustrator’s career prospects.

Roger Mello dossier

First, the dossier: an intricately feathered monkey with a bright, inquisitive face on a plum background. This gorgeous and elaborate box arrived alongside a host of plain paper dossiers, and, as you can probably guess, stood out a mile. This is Mello’s own illustration, and as soon as I saw the box I couldn’t wait to peruse his books. I was not disappointed. They are unapologetically colorful, almost Carnaval-like, and filled with all sorts of wonderful people, creatures, and places. Even the covers are works of art in their own right.

Meninos do mangue ("Mangrove Children" and Zubair e os Labrintos ("Zubair and the Labyrinths")

Meninos do mangue (“Mangrove Children”) and Zubair e os Labrintos (“Zubair and the Labyrinths”)

When I was very little and growing up in Alabama, my Mom would sometimes take me to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. I remember it had a fabulous and dynamic children’s section full of exciting things to discover. For some reason, these covers remind me specifically of that Museum. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that they are so bright and and diverse and engaging, almost collage-like, an invitation to explore.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Who, exactly, is this Roger Mello fellow?

Mello is 48–relatively young for an Andersen award winner–and has published over 100 titles throughout the course of his career, including poetry, short stories, screenplays, and, of course, books for children. [1] Born in 1965, Mello was raised in Brasília, and is, in his own words, a child of the authoritarian military dictatorship that controlled Brazil from 1964-1985. [1] Despite the toxic political environment in which he was raised, Mello’s imagination escaped unscathed–or, as Mac Margolis has suggested, perhaps it was precisely that oppression that spurred Mello to create.

Mello’s books, it should be noted, aren’t supposed to have all the answers; rather, Mello expects his readers to utilize their imaginations to fill in the gaps. Samantha Christensen has remarked that Mello “avoids heavy didactic or moralizing overtones, and instead encourages his readers to draw their own conclusion[s] based on the images and narrative at hand.” [2]

Mello’s upbringing during the dictatorship helps to explain the strong thread of social criticism running throughout his books, and especially in Carvoeirinhos (“Young Charcoal Burners”), which exposes the evils of child labor.

Carveoirinhos ("Young Charcoal Burners")

Carveoirinhos (“Young Charcoal Burners”)

According to a review of the book written by Sérgio Maggio, “Young Charcoal Burners” is an indictment of “the relentless economic system…that ends up pouring money into the pockets of the millionaire steel owners,” while endangering the children who must perpetually feed the fires. [3] Indeed, “Young Charcoal Burners” stands out among Mello’s books, which are usually lavishly illustrated in jewel tones. Instead, “Young Charcoal Burners” is all in gray–like charcoal–while the fires, symbols of heat and oppression, burst relentlessly from the pages in orange, pink, and red.

From "Young Charcoal Burners"

From “Young Charcoal Burners”

The plight of the children used to prop up an enormously profitable industry could not be expressed any more clearly in the above mixed-media illustration. The boy, cast all in somber, gray tones, literally seems to be transferring his vitality unto the voracious fire.

So, too, is Meninos do mangue (“Mangrove Children”) about child labor. Meninos tells the story of the children who live in the mangrove forests. These children have to pay extremely close attention to the tides so that they can harvest the crabs that flow in on the waves. “The book is set in an unusual place which is home to a bunch of kids who are often ignored by society,” says Mello, and was inspired by Geography of Hunger by sociologist Josue de Castro. [4] The title page of the book–also in gray–depicts members of the mangrove community in various stages of trapping, transporting, and preparing crabs.

Meninos do mangue, title page

Meninos do mangue, title page

João por um fio (“John by a Hair’ s Breadth”) is slightly more lighthearted. The bright red cover, with a small monkey-like man swinging from one intricate geometric swirl to another, hints at the entertaining story inside.

João por um fio

João por um fio (“John by a Hair’s Breadth”)

It’s always a pleasure to see line drawings done so well. The undying popularity of lush illustrations in children’s literature sometimes gets overwhelming, and I appreciate when illustrators are willing to branch out by exploring more abstract modes.

“John by a Hair’s Breadth” tells the story of John, the son of a fisherman, who has elaborate dreams every night. Mello illustrates these dreams and flights of fancy with intricate nets, webs, and matrices, which were in turn inspired by  classic Brazilian embroidery. [5]

Joao por um fio, image

So, too, is Zubair e os Labrintos (“Zubair and the Labyrinths”) a tale of mazes. Set against a bright orange backdrop, the perpetually running Zubair must navigate his way through difficult after increasingly difficult maze.

Zubair e os labrintos

Zubair e os labrintos

Interestingly, as Tino Freitas writes, “[Zubair] tells of the historic sack of the Bagdad Museum during the war. Pieces of incalculable value, such as vases from Mesopotamia, Assyrian ivory carvings, ceramics from the royal cemetery of the city of Ur were left at the mercy of vandals and opportunists. Young Zubair runs through the rubble.” [6] Based on a series of actual events that transpired in 2003, when hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts were looted before the eyes of U.S. and British troops, Zubair e os Labrintos illustrates how one particular artifact–a carpet–can lead someone back through the layers of time to ancient Mesopotamia. An intriguing, and unusual, war narrative to say the least.

By now, it should be obvious (I hope!) why Roger Mello is such a decorated illustrator, with countless awards to his name. Yet despite his homeland fame and ever-growing international status, none of Mello’s books have ever been published in the United States. [1] In fact, they are not even readily available. Only seven of his books have been translated: one into German, two into French, three into Chinese, and two into Spanish. It is well known that children’s books are much more likely to be translated from English into other languages, as opposed to the other way around. But it is nothing short of tragic when books from Brazil’s now most-famous illustrator have been prevented from entering the English-speaking world by publishers concerned about marketing and sales with little respect for or awareness of international titles.

Luckily, my favorite book of Mello’s happens to have no words, meanings its cleverness and shifting perspectives can be understood by all. It begins with a naughty tiger…

Selvagem ("Savage")

Selvagem (“Savage”)

Wordless picturebooks are typically delightful, and Selvagem (“Savage”) is no disappointment. The story takes place within a single room where an arrogant hunter admires his reflection in the mirror. A framed photo of a tiger, meanwhile, is the only source of color and liveliness in an otherwise gray room.

Selvagem, image

Eventually, the tiger grows bored with his predicament and decides to elevate his 2-dimensional existence. I won’t ruin the surprise, but suffice it to say that the tiger gets his revenge on the hunter, and then some!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this review of Roger Mello’s incredible work. I don’t believe he has a website, but if you’re curious about Mello, I did find this interview (which I believe was conducted in Italian) that took place at the Book Fair in Bologna shortly after Mello was announced as the winner of the 2014 HCA Award. I can’t understand a word, but at least you get a sense of how cheerful he seems in real life!

A huge congratulations to Roger Mello and all of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award nominees! This post completes my mini-series on illustrators nominated for the 2014 awards. I certainly hope you have enjoyed it! And do not worry; I have several more ideas regarding children’s literature in the works.

Here is the full list of all the illustrators I featured:

Alenka Sottler, Slovenia

Svjetlan Junaković, Croatia

Byong-Ho Han, South Korea

Reinis Pētersons, Latvia

Albertine, Switzerland 

Xiong Liang, China

Carll Cneut, Belgium 

Javier Zabala, Spain

Igor Oleynikov, Russia

Fabian Negrin, Italy

——-

Sources:

[1] Mac Margolis. “Illustrator Becomes First Latin American to Win Highest Children’s Lit Honor.” Vocativ.com. Persistent URL.

[2] Samantha Christensen. “Roger Mello: Brazil, Illustrator.” Bookbird Vol. 52, No. 2, 2014; p. 11. Persistent URL.

[3] Sérgio Maggio. “Brasiliense Roger Mello denuncia poeticamente os males do trabalho infantil em Carvoeirinhos” (Engl. “Brasiliense Roger Mello poetically denounces the evils of child labor in Carvoeirinhos”). Correio Braziliense. Persistent URL

[4] Alethea Muniz. “Brasiliense illustrator and author Roger Mello is a finalist in two categories of the Jabuti Award with his hook Meninos do mangue, in which he opens up the universe of the communities who live in the countries’ urban mangrove swamps.” Correio Braziliense. Not available online.

[5] Daniel Almeida. “F or the little ones – Delicate Plot.” TAM Magazine , N° 27, May 2006. Not available online.

[6] Tino Freitas. “Breaking through shadows, discovering labyrinths…”  Bookworms, October 18, 2007, bookmarks: roedores de livros – Dicas de Livros. Not available online.

[7] Dossier on Roger Mello prepared by the Brazilian Section of IBBY — the Fundação Nacional do Livro Infantil e Juvenil (FNLIJ) — for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen jury. Not available online.

Chick Corea & Béla Fleck at the Auditorium Theater

stage
On Saturday night, G. and I went downtown to the Auditorium Theater to see legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea and virtuoso banjo player Béla Fleck perform a series of duets together. It was a wonderful concert, and I’m so glad that when G. asked,

“Hey, do you wanna go see this dude Chick play the piano?”

I responded Who?? and then said, “Yeah, sure, let’s go.”

Originally we were seated near the back of the Theater, but true to its name, the Auditorium has pretty amazing acoustics, and the sound mixing at that distance from the stage was perfection, so we really didn’t mind. But it turns out they forgot that there wouldn’t be an orchestra performing, and there were a bunch of chairs right near the stage that were completely unoccupied. Chick made a comment about it, and pretty soon small groups of people leeched out of their seats and tiptoed down to the front of the auditorium to sit near the masters. During intermission, we decided that we, too, could be bold–and that’s where that beautiful photo above came from.

Bela Fleck Chick

If the sound mixing from the back of the theater was perfect, then sitting in the orchestra chairs two feet from the stage was immersive. Never did I imagine that a banjo could sound like that–Béla is able to make it sound like a Spanish guitar, a sitar, and a Hungarian hammered dulcimer. Under Chick’s hands, the piano alternately sounds like a waterfall, a harp, and a cello; and then suddenly, just when you think it can’t get any more exciting, he plunges his hands into the heart of the grand piano and plucks the strings, reminding us that yes, the piano is a string instrument. During my favorite moments, the piano and banjo blended into each other so well that the two became indistinguishable.

selfie

When we moved up to the stage, I was shocked by how much interaction was taking place between the two musicians. Chick only spent maybe 20% of his time looking at the keyboard; the rest of the time he was studying the audience, nodding along to Béla’s melodies, or looking directly at Béla and smiling in clear admiration. Another advantage of being so close to the performers was that we could hear all the humorous things they said to each other in between songs. At one point, Chick stopped to take a photo of himself and the audience was obliged to pause and chuckle while he posted his selfie on Facebook.

G. commented that part of the magic of the concert was its lack of pretentiousness. There was no concern for formality; Chick and Béla were both wearing tennis shoes, and it felt less like a performance than an intimate jam session with two musicians who enjoy each other’s company and have an enormous respect for each other’s musical abilities.

Though every song was perfect–and when I say perfect, I really do mean it–my favorite of the night was the intricately minor “Menagerie,” which you can listen to on Grooveshark here. If I’m remembering correctly, all of their other songs were in a major key, and I felt that “Menagerie” was exceptionally well-suited to their style. They also improvised a large chunk of the song–I’m pretty sure that “Menagerie” at the Auditorium Theater was closer to 15 minutes, not 5.

The ending of the concert couldn’t have been any more satisfying. The audience was clearly appreciate of the musicians, who returned the favor of a standing ovation with a lengthy encore.

I hope you enjoyed this brief concert review (with some observations from G. sprinkled throughout). Now I’m off to listen to more of their 2007 album “The Enchantment,” starting with the gorgeous “Brazil“!