Sci-fi flick gives confronting take on racism

District 9
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring Shralto Copley, Jason Cope and Robert Hobbs
111 minutes; in cinemas nationally

Reviewed by Dani Barley

Neill Blomkamp makes a stunning directorial debut with District 9, a film set in a fictional parallel world in which an alien spaceship stalls above Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1982. After relocating the starving aliens to a temporary refugee camp, the situation devolves as the derisively nicknamed “Prawns” become trapped in the militarised slum known as District 9. Part mockumentary and part “how many cool ways can we blow stuff up?” action flick, District 9 nonetheless provides a strong and compelling social commentary on racism, the corporate thirst for wealth at any cost and the forced removal from one’s home.

The film opens with a mockumentary chronicling the events leading up to the forced relocation of the 1.8 million residents of District 9 to a camp 240 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg known as District 10. Despite their propaganda, the minds behind the move know that the new camp is less like the shiny brochures promise and more like a modern-day concentration camp. Regardless, the human residents of Johannesburg don’t like the alien “problem” and want them moved as far away as possible.

Under South African law, the residents of District 9 must be given 24 hours notice of their eviction and must sign a form to say they’ve received such notification. A TV crew follows Multi-National United (MNU) bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe, the man placed in charge of the mass eviction, as he travels from shack to shack collecting the signatures of notice. His tactics to gain such signatures range from exaggeration to bribery with cat food (as it’s the favourite food of the aliens) to threatening to take away the child of the main alien protagonist in a scene that calls upon Australia’s Stolen Generations in a chilling way.

Blackwater on steroids

Van de Merwe is a smiling and hapless accomplice in the operation, with little regard or respect for the aliens. His presence serves as an apt reminder that not everyone who carries out such horrid policies are hardened ideologues, but are often just unquestioning pawns of the ruling class. His father-in-law, Piet Smith, is the director of MNU — an organisation that looks like Blackwater on steroids, complete with mercenaries and secret genetic experiments on the aliens in an attempt to harness their DNA and thus be able to use their superior weaponry, which only responds to the alien’s touch. Van de Merwe’s stance on the aliens’ plight undergoes a rapid shift after an accidental encounter with alien technology during a search of one of the shacks leaves him undergoing a literal (and sometimes painfully graphic) transformation into one of “them”.

Most of the film’s protagonists have definite shades of grey in their characters and cannot be viewed completely sympathetically with the notable exception of Christopher Johnson, the main alien character and a relevant reminder of the practice of forcing new slaves or immigrants to change their names to something palatable to residents of their new homeland. You have to hand it to the people behind the CGI-effects as Johnson’s mannerisms and movements (as well as those of the rest of his species) are flawlessly executed and blend seamlessly with the live action footage.

Due to van de Merwe’s accident and on-going transformation, he and Johnson are forced into an unlikely partnership of necessity to retrieve an item from the high security underground labs at the MNU headquarters. Prior to their entrance to the building, there were moments reminiscent of Hollywood buddy-cop humour between the two and you wondered whether Blomkamp had decided to change direction and make an “inter-species” Lethal Weapon. The light-heartedness didn’t last long, however, and the film soon descends into a largely “shoot ‘em up” action flick.

This is not to say the film ends badly or the second half was sub-par, but it was less compelling than the first half (unless you’re a Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay devotee, in which case, this is the perfect hour and a bit for you.) It does, however, definitely provide some interesting discussion points to those paying attention.

The most obvious is the question of race and the practice of apartheid, magnified by its setting in South Africa. The arguments used in District 9 to justify the eviction of the aliens were almost verbatim the arguments used against black South Africans under apartheid. The shacks used in the fictional District 9 were, in fact, recently vacated slums in Chiawelo, a suburb of Soweto.

District 9 is based on an earlier short-film by Blomkamp called Alive in Joburg, which in turn is based on the actual forced removal and relocation of 60,000 non-white South Africans from Cape Town’s District Six to Cape Flats in the 1970s. Alive in Joburg is very similar to the mockumentary style of the first half of District 9, including the interviews with a wide range (and colours) of people about the “alien” presence in South Africa. However, when Blomkamp was shooting the footage, he was interviewing real people, not actors, and instead of asking about extra-terrestrials, he was actually asking them about black Nigerians and Zimbabweans. (Alive in Joburg is available for viewing on YouTube.)

Exaggerated criticisms

The biggest criticism of the film’s racial politics that has been made by left-wing reviewers seems to be about the over-the-top secondary villains — a gang of psychopathic Nigerians who run a black market weapons trade within District 9. They are one-dimensional to an almost silly extent, but feature in such a small part of the film that they shouldn’t provide a distraction to its otherwise excellent allegory. It’s also interesting to note that the only MNU employee who attempts to come to the aid of van de Merwe is his black assistant Fundiswa Mhlanga, who later is imprisoned for breaking into the MNU computer systems to look for evidence of van de Merwe’s disappearance. Despite the substantial amount of evidence found, it is he and not the MNU brass that end up behind bars.

Ken Olende sums up the film’s strengths well in the September 19 UK Socialist Worker, “Science fiction has always been concerned with otherness. Where racism is discussed in science fiction films it has often been in a dogmatic way. District 9 manages to avoid most of these pitfalls. And the film steadfastly avoids stating whether either humans or aliens are inherently superior.”

The film also draws parallels with the present-day plight of migrant “guest” workers and “illegal” immigrants, super-exploited as cheap labour by their employers. (Though, in the case of the aliens in District 9, they are largely valued for their ability to operate spectacular weapons — an ability that MNU wants to harness at any cost — rather than their labour power.) Its portrait of evictions and the treatment of those who resist is paralleled by the experience of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. The forced “abortions” of alien children and the need to have a permit to procreate echo centuries of attempts at ethnic genocide. District 9 is an excellent sci-fi flick in its own right, with clever performances and mesmerising visual effects, but it also has an undercurrent of social commentary worthy of measured reflection and in-depth discussion. And watch out for the flying pig.