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.

10 thoughts on “District 9 and the homegrown arts

  1. Stefanie Noble

    We’re out there, but it’s hard to get a voice and venue in this town. For musicians, if you aren’t a bar band, the places to play where people will listen and you won’t get hosed by promoter-types are few and far between. Singer-songwriters with guitars only can squeeze into coffeeshops, etc. but it’s hard for a full band.

    For filmmakers and other artists, there have been some low-profile events, usually related to SU, but not always. I know that the Syracuse Film Festival rejected the (really quite good, in my opinion) short film of a friend.

    We’re out here, usually doing stuff when we can, when we aren’t working, but where do we go with the output? The best solution that some of us have had is to rent out the Westcott CC to do stuff, but since the larger community doesn’t really have a great way of hearing about this stuff, it ends up being friends/family/same fans over and over.

    It’s a void that does need to be filled because the talent is definitely here.

  2. Andrea

    Syracuse is definitely lacking in good venues for musicians. If you’re not a bar band, one of the best places is Burritt’s cafe in Weedsport. There’s also a place called Kellish Farm in Manlius that’s very hospitable and a great place to play acoustic music. But there’s always the question of where to find the audience.

    But as far as honesty in the arts goes, this city doesn’t openly address it’s own issues as much as it could. Art is the best way to do this because it’s less confrontational. If you want to see the underbelly of Syracuse, read user comments to a Post-Standard article on anything near controversial.

    I don’t think arts in Syracuse lacks honesty. Visit Art Rage gallery for an example. Or the warehouse of artists at the corner of Geddes and Erie. What Syracuse arts lack is making honest statements *about Syracuse*. Which would be the most powerful.

  3. Stefanie Noble

    Speaking of music/art about Syracuse… It always amuses me that my favorite bands tend to be from gloomy, rainy, post-industrial towns. Syracuse = the new Manchester or Liverpool!

  4. Brian Cubbison

    There’s a horror movie, “Germs,” being filmed in Highland Forest, but I know that’s not what you mean. It’s an excellent post that has me thinking about a lot of things.

    I saw “District 9” as a wicked satire, “The Office”meets “Alien, with a powerful sense of place. The best satires are presented with a straight face, and that’s part of why the movie is sometimes uncomfortable. We get the apartheid theme, but is the movie unaware of what it’s doing to the Nigerians? Or is that another level of irony? An American movie would probably be more obvious about whom to mock, and that’s not necessarily better.

    On Central New York movies: “The Express,” of course, was the full Hollywood treatment. It put Syracuse in the best possible light, and that’s a good thing. But its sense of place was of Hollywood, not of Syracuse.

    “Frozen River” might be closer to what you’re looking for, a powerful story that comes from this part of the country.

    A movie that I think captures the soul of Syracuse (or one part of it) better than any other so far is the 1999 movie “Freak Talks About Sex,” which is not what it sounds like.

    On local artists: I wonder if they worry about being pigeonholed as merely local or regional artists when they want to perform on a big stage. To tell powerful stories about your hometown, you have to be so much of it, yet able to stand back from it and see it differently. And do the university and the art scene overshadow any outsider or primitive art that might emerge?

  5. Ellen

    Yes, it’s definitely a satire which means sometimes you go “Is it OK to laugh at this?”

    The Nigerians thing has been explained by the director as being a kind of South African in-joke (or in-horror) because black and white South Africans alike have felt terrorized by what they see as bad elements moving in from Nigeria and Zimbabwe. (In fact, if you watch the short film that inspired it, “Alive in Joburg” – the locals appear to be discussing aliens, but in reality, the director was only asking most of them their thoughts on Nigerians and Zimbabwean refugees.) Apparently Nigerian street gangs make really good villains in South African pop culture, or something. However, someone else pointed out that the evil corporation in the film and the Nigerian gang leader both want exactly the same thing from the hero… for the same reasons… and are willing to do pretty much the same things to get it.

    Then I’ve actually read some complaints from reviewers about how the film is demonizing corporations. (boggle) Was not aware that corporate weapons manufacturers needed defending. Wow. (Maybe Nigerian gangsters don’t need defending…?)

    As for Syracuse, I guess I shouldn’t paint everything with a broad brush. There is the Community Folk Art Gallery, after all. And that large mural of the snow crystals sliding into Onondaga Lake. I just wonder how much of a truly local arts vision we can expect in a college town where the artistically supported tend to come and go in four-year waves.

  6. Rich Finzer


    Your comments about the “arts” are pithy and thought provoking. In the past, I’ve posted numerous comments to the P-S about this same topic but I come at it 180 degrees from your view.

    The arts are a luxury, an extravagance that Syracuse could once afford with ease. The wealth that private industry and entrepenuers created using the Erie Canal and the city’s once robust manufacturing base meant there were plenty of private $$$ to be spent by art patrons. That money is gone – forever. Why? Only process driven industries or basic manufacturing create value-added wealth. When a local economy has economic “drivers” consisting of education, healthcare, and government: no new wealth is being created. Those sectors only consume wealth they don’t generate any.

    These days the primary funding sources for the arts are grants and various forms of public (read taxpayer) largess. And any time you get the government involved in funding the arts, you have the very real potential of the public being presented with another “Piss Christ” (remember Robert Maplethorp?). BTW, that one bonehead move by the NEA cost them more goodwill than those eggheads can possibly imagine.

    Unless Syracuse can reinvigorate its local economic base and the private wealth which would be created, the “arts” as you envision them are all but dead.

    I don’t attend SSO performances, opera performances, plays and rarely if ever even set foot inside a museum. Personally I have neither the time nor the inclination. Your lament is legitimate and quite understandable and I sympathize with your concerns although I do not share them.

    The sad and undeniable truth is that funding for the arts is a luxury and Syracuse can barely afford the necessities.

  7. Ellen

    However, when one can barely afford the necessities, strangely enough that desperate situation is the crucible of actual culture (as it has been from time immemorial in places around the world).

    Culture is never a luxury. It is a natural by-product of being in survival mode. It would be nice if limited funding for the arts went toward the expression of local culture, as opposed to “cultural consumption opportunities” (ie the creation of an “arts scene” where people do wine and cheese while they look at stuff created by people who aren’t speaking to the unique situation of local people.)

  8. Rich Finzer


    Well then by your own definition, this blog could certainly be considered “art”. It reflects your cultural values which are undoubtedly a reflection of the unique situation of our local area. And I mean that in a good way. The printed word is every bit as relavent to our visual senses as painting, sculpture, graffiti, etc.

    But to my mind, there is a distinction between culture and art. Culture is our collective experience, values, and behaviors. And you’re correct, culture is not a luxury: it simply exists in good times or bad. Art on the other hand is the individual’s perception/interpretation of that culture.

    What I lament is the monotonous sameness of modern design. We seem to have lost our creativity when it comes to the stuff we make. Structures like the NIMO bldg or machines like the ’59 Cadillac have no present day equivalents. The ’59 Caddy with those distinctive bullet tailights almost shouted – “Hey look at me!” By comparison, the Caddys of today don’t look much different from anything else. Little rectangular boxes with 4 wheels. The ’59 Cadillac was “art”. Appearance-wise, today’s models are the automotive equivalent of a Big Mac.

  9. Brian Cubbison

    I wonder what we would consider to be the most compelling local works and artists. Without turning it into a best-of list, what’s the book that says the most about local culture? What movie? What architectural work? What other categories?

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