District 9 and the homegrown arts

I don’t usually talk about movies here on the blog. My usual shtick is to link everything back to a Syracuse-centric POV here, and with most movies that’s kind of hard to do. But this isn’t difficult to do with a discussion of the new sci-fi movie DISTRICT 9, a South African-made film that helps me express my feelings of disappointment with the lack of a local arts vision in the Syracuse area (as opposed to “an arts scene”).

I saw the film last weekend and liked it a lot (with reservations), enough to want to see it again in a theater at some point. It isn’t the greatest movie ever made, and is sometimes so unconventional as to be disorienting (quite a few people have reported walking out on it for various reasons). But I think in years to come, it will be remembered among a select group of recent sci-fi such as ALIEN (the original), BLADE RUNNER and THE TERMINATOR and also non-Hollywood notables like MAD MAX (the original). If you haven’t seen it, go in with an open mind, a lot of patience and a strong stomach, and you may be rewarded.

The movie is also attracting a lot of attention because of its resonance with past and current events in South African society. The Canadian director grew up in S.A. and the lead actor is South African; the movie was filmed on location in the worst slums of Johannesburg. Although no explicit parallels are made, the commentary on apartheid and refugees is unmistakable. (There are even some controversial elements involving Nigerian characters which seem to have their roots more in modern-day South African xenophobia about newcomers than in overt stereotyping of Africans, but your judgment on this may be different.) What you have here is a sci-fi action movie that is completely informed by its real-life setting — passionately crafted by people who know and love their country and its great questions and struggles, confidently sharing what they know with the rest of the moviegoing world.

Why can’t Syracuse’s arts be more like this?

Every nation, society or even city, is cursed (or blessed) with some great unanswered question or complexity it is trying to work out in its own way. The greatest questions have to do with how we treat each other. Syracuse is also unique in that sense. Aside from the more familiar questions of what to do with a declining city and its people, a question many Rust Belt cities share, we also have our fingers more firmly on the faint pulse of America’s real original sin – the tragic relationship between Natives and the West. I can’t think of any other American city, large or small, that really does. We’re hardly close enough, but I believe we are the closest.

I sometimes think that public art in Syracuse is, as Isaac Newton said, more about “playing by the seashore [with] a few pebbles while the whole vast ocean of truth stretches out almost untouched.” I wonder where the muralists, sculptors, playwrights and filmmakers are, why we don’t seem to have an artistic consciousness that actually expresses who WE are, where we’ve been and where we are going in a non-generic way – a way that the rest of the world might actually sit up and take notice of. I don’t blame anyone for this – just expressing frustration.

Am I missing something going on here in Syracuse? I possibly am. But I worry that we are so obsessed with being cool that we’ve forgotten to be real.