Neil Blomkamp created the most original science fiction film of 2009, no small feat in a year when Duncan Jones brought old school philosophical sci-fi sensibility to the screen in his beautifully realized Moon and James Cameron forever raised the visual stakes in Avatar. Blomkamp trumped both of those important films by bringing a global vision to a largely western European genre.
Based on a 2005 short film entitled Alive in JoBurg , Blomkamps’s District Nine intertwined politics, extraterrestrials and a deep awareness of South African history and society to shape a multi-layered epic. The newly released DVD, with insightful commentary by the writer and director, allows us another trip to District 9’s realistically rendered world where private military contractors, state-created ethnic homelands and compromised international aid agencies exist side by side with a gigantic space ship, an exotic alien race and otherworldly technology.
District Nine tells the story of a damaged alien ship that came to a mysterious stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. Opening up with “documentary footage”, we learn that alien visitors, apparently ravaged by some disease that killed the leadership echelons of their society, have been placed under the paternalist care of a Haliburton-like corporation known as Multinational United (MNU). Segregated into a township known as “District 9” the alien society becomes enervated by poverty and despair, reduced to living off human charity and targeted by human racism. Labeled derisively as “prawns,” native South Africans, black and white, see the galactic refugees as a social blight and District 9 as a breeding ground of crime and deviance.
Enter Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) a mid-level bureaucrat charged with relocating the prawns to a new segregated district. Here, Blomkomp seamlessly moves us from convincing documentarian footage to the more nearly cinematic portion of the film while maintaining a cinéma vérité feel with locations filmed in Soweto, at one point filming Wikus going door to door in an abandoned shantytown in Soweto where the South African government actually did displace the residents. During this effort, Wikus becomes infected with prawn genetic material that leads to an ironic physical transformation. The balance of the film uses the experience of Wikus as a metaphor within the larger metaphor, combining a fairly wrenching story with some blazing action sequences to create a film experience at once deeply satisfying and deeply unsettling.
Special attention should go to the relatively unknown actor Sharlto Copley for creating with school chum Blonkamp the character of Wikus. Shaping Wikus’ personality into one that is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes repellent and sometimes both at once, Copley takes us on a strange pilgrimage that invites us to ask questions about racism, the borders of ethnic and personal identities and how these unstable compounds become explosive in a world of privatized charity and privatized armies. Wikus the bumbling bureaucrat represents both a mild racism and a patronizing paternalism, indicting much more than simple prejudice. This is a movie with villains but it’s also a film where apathy and moral laziness are the real enemy.
District 9 is also a film that refuses to teach the easy and simple lesson. Neil Blomkamp’s commentary opens up this complex achievement in a number of ways. The writer/director notes a number of layers of meaning that exist in the film, not all of them originally intended. When making his original short feature, Blomkamp had meant the segregation of the alien race in Johannesburg to represent a fairly straightforward allegory of apartheid. However, he actually began filming that short feature at a time when rising tensions in the city lead to a series of attacks on immigrant Zimbabwean and Nigerian communities. Some of this actual footage made its way into the short film and later into District 9.
Unfortunately, Blomkamp talks very little about the controversial material he himself introduces into this already volatile mix. At first, it seems that those parts of the film that show the aliens as truly alien, subhuman in their urges and pastimes, are meant to replicate in the audience the attitudes shared by Wikus and the “person on the street” interviews in which everyday South Africans complain about the refugees.
Moreover, the condescending portrayal of the prawns as animalistic, silly and a bit savage is surpassed by its representations of immigrant Nigerians as being predatory and even cannibalistic. A significant plot-point in District 9 centers on a fairly vile Nigerian gangster named Obesandjo whose belief in a brutal variety of sympathetic magic leads him to consume alien flesh in an effort to gain “strength”. Few American critics have noted just how problematic such portrayals are in contemporary Africa. This was not missed on the continent itself, however. The Nigerian government banned the film and noted the similarity of the name of the evil, alien-flesh-eating gangster to former Nigerian Prime Minister Obasanjo.
Is this then an allegory about race that itself misuses race? Perhaps part of what happens with this film, and what makes it so much better than a simple allegory, is that the alleged documentary footage fools us into accepting the narrative assertions it makes. As noted earlier, even the more traditionally cinematic portions of “ District 9 have a cinéma vérité feel, making Blomkamp’s work a science fiction version of Passoloni’s Open City with its ability to shape a narrative in the midst of an actual urban environment and urban inhabitants rather than a studio backlot filled with extras. The power of this, combined with the director’s use of numerous handheld camera and even security tape footage, tricks the audience in the same way that short clips from the evening news trick its “audience” with an oversimplified version of knotty social and historical issues.
When we watch the “found footage” at the beginning of the film where prawns sift through mounds of garbage and battle one another viciously over catfood, are we seeing some kind of essential truth about the inhabitants of District 9? Or are we seeing something like the images of American inner cities that appeared on television in the ’80s, images that suggested that nothing ever occurred there that did not involve heavily armed “gangstas” and crack whores? Perhaps something similar happens in the film’s representation of Nigerians, themselves the target of the same kind of prejudice that the aliens face. The film implicates us in this by only allowing us to see them through the lens of bureaucracy and media representation. One symbol of this highly restricted vantage point is that we only know to call the aliens “prawns,” never learning what they call themselves and thus never truly understanding their conception of who they are.
This rather complex narrative point of view makes Wikus an even more compelling character. Showing us the story through Wikus’ experience allows Blomkamp to implicate all of us in his portrayals of “stereotypes”, suggesting that he has not shaped these characters but rather we have created them by believing the “truth” of the images that flash in front of us. This lazy willingness to define entire groups of people through the stock images that flash on the screen and that flash in our heads represents the attitude Blomkamp wants to make us look at, an attitude that is more than attitudinal as it creates a world full of the same kinds of walls that surround District 9.
The special edition DVD and Blu-Ray comes packed with extras that draw us more deeply into Blomkamp’s vision. What is most disappointing is that his original short, Alive in Joburg, does not appear. This seems like a huge oversight since it’s only about ten-minutes in length and could have easily been added (it is possible to watch it on YouTube and other outlets). Otherwise, one of the gems of the extras disc is a featurette called “Metamorphosis“, which shows the non-CGI transformation of Copley /Wikus into a Prawn that provides more insight into this fascinating character.
Science fiction, from Ray Bradbury to Phillip K. Dick has always offered the possibility for searing social commentary. District 9 deserves recognition beside the best of these works. Its true strength is that it places the fantastic together with the horrific in our world, rather than an alternative universe or a dystopic future, making us ask hard questions about our prejudices and the flimsy materials from which we construct them.