Friday, September 11, 2009

The Aliens have Landed

A spaceship looming over Joburg's characteristic skyline is an incongruent and unexpected sight. It is an image that local cinemagoers are unlikely ever to forget. Not just because an extraterrestrial invasion of Joburg is far-fetched or even because we tend to associate such staple science-fiction scenes with Hollywood products, but because this (mostly) home-grown cinematic product heralds a new era in South African film-making. Foremost, District 9 is a visual spectacle like no other. It feeds at the intersection between the imagination, history and popular culture, giving rise to a truly transcultural hybrid product. Further contributing to District 9's hybrid character is the fact that Neill Blomkamp, the writer and director, has employed a heady mix of genres to narrate his unusual tale; from sci-fi and mockumentary to action-drama, with a heavy political subtext thrown into the mix, Blomkamp has produced a film that is tricky to pigeonhole. Consequently, it presents a peculiar visual and ideological aesthetic that breaks out of any established cinematic mould, making it the first of its kind.

Because it draws from so many familiar film genres, it has broad appeal; action lovers to academics will all be titillated by Blomkamp's sci-fi spectacle. It is likely, therefore, to be the first bona fide South African blockbuster - Leon Shuster's record will finally be broken - thereby ushering in a new epoch in homegrown cinema. But, most important, it is the first local film that probes our dark and tempestuous past and present in such a unique manner. And this is where the sci-fi impulses in the film come into play: all the fantastical or otherworldly features create distance. Thus segregation, violence and prejudice play out in an alternative reality to our own, althoughthe setting and earthly characters are eerily familiar. In this way, South Africans will be able to view their culture from an objective standpoint - a perspective that has escaped our cultural producers thus far. But are we ready to view our history from such a position, particularly when it comes packaged in a satirical action drama tailor-made for American viewers? Does the sci-fi angle only serve to trivialise apartheid?

By employing a sci-fi idiom, Blomkamp does fix his audience in a remote position that evinces our society's proclivity for violence and prejudice, which manifests or is amplified whenever it is presented with an unknowable Other. Here, of course, the outsiders come in the form of aliens or "Prawns" - the sobriquet that the Joburgers assign to this crustacean-like population that come to seek refuge in their city when a malfunction occurs with their spaceship. The "Prawns" couldn't have picked a worse place for a breakdown: they are summarily rounded up and dumped in a township called District 9. Here they lead an impoverished existence, forced to scour rubbish dumps for nourishment and objects to build shelters. And if this isn't bad enough they must also contend with Multinational United's (MNU) heavy-handed forces. MNU is a private defence contractor that the government has engaged to deal with the relocation of the "Prawns" to another locale, where they will be more closely monitored and isolated from mainstream society.

Joburgers support their removal: documentary footage confirms their resentment of these alien beings who are thought to present a threat. Echoes of swart gevaar (black danger) loom large, as do other phenomena that characterised the apartheid era, such as forced removals, segregation and a reckless if not immoral disregard for others - baby "Prawns" are heartlessly exterminated by the MNU. Completing the apartheid analogy are a host of South African archetypes such as the central character, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), assigned as head of the operation to resettle the aliens in a camp on the outskirts of Joburg.

Van der Merwe is a stereotypical Afrikaans bureaucrat drawn from the apartheid era: his buffoonery and apparent happy-go-lucky attitude belie a persona capable of carrying out acts of extreme violence and cruelty. But as his actions are sanctioned by the state and the multinational he works for, he does not question the nature or effects of his actions. That is, until he finds himself wearing the other shoe and he comes to truly grasp and empathise with the plight of the "Prawns".

Wikus undergoes a physical metamorphosis, but it is his psychological transformation that promises redemption for the white Afrikaner. His change of attitude and willingness to help liberate the "Prawns" mirrors the political about-turn that occurred in the country before the 1994 elections.
"I am glad that I got to play an Afrikaner with a redemptive quality, because I think Afrikaners have been labelled the bad guys for apartheid. The fact that they voted to change the system is very quickly overlooked by the rest of the world," observes Copley.
In playing Van der Merwe, Copley says he was able to deal with some of the emotional baggage that comes with being a white South African. "It allowed me to process some of the various emotions that I have had. I have gone from feeling ashamed and guilty to feeling proud to feeling afraid that our country is going to turn into the next Zimbabwe.
"To go through all (of this) is a complicated set of emotions and so for me the film touches on some of those feelings. It has provided a sort of outlet. Because it has satire, you laugh about how ridiculous it all is."
Of course, the satirical and humorous undertones in the film, which are mostly established through the mockumentary form of narration that characterises the early part of the film, might prompt some to question whether District 9 makes light of the country's history and the xenophobia phenomenon, which its plot also recalls. Nevertheless, the victims - the Prawns - and their suffering are never mocked; it is Van der Merwe, who embodies the figure of the Afrikaner perpetrator, that is the target of Blomkamp's satirical and cynical gaze.

There are moments of lightness, but largely the movie conjures a morbid world governed by power-hungry authorities who think little of the social cost of their greed. With the actions of the MDU recalling those of SANDF Special Forces, District 9 evokes bitter truths about South Africa's history, albeit candy-coated in the sci-fi action idiom.
"The bad guys that Neill (Blomkamp) conjures are taken straight from our collective subconscious," observes Jason Cope, who plays Christopher Johnson, the main alien, and a number of other aliens. "I felt there were times when I couldn't breathe while watching the cops beating people. It was very intense. But it is like all those films where the big bad mobster or evil Nazi is portrayed in a candyfloss action movie. It's a disturbing and terrible process but an interesting one because of that."
Mandla Gaduka, who stars as Van der Merwe's assistant, Fundiswa Mhlanga, was taken aback to see "aspects of our past portrayed in this way. It will be interesting to see how some people will view our past portrayed in such a way, with action and sci-fi aspects to it."
Gaduka is also concerned the clicks in the aliens' language "might be a sore point with some people".
Blomkamp insists that he never set out to make a film that overtly dealt with his country's political past. The inference is that Blomkamp's imagination is a product of his provenance. Hailing from such a politicised environment, it was a given that this South African-born film-maker would imbue any story of his home town with a political subtext. Perhaps any representation of South African life is burdened by its history.
"I was trying not to beat people over the head with 'this is Neill's message'. The genetic experimentation stuff in the movie is like Wouter Basson and the SANDF influence. The character of Kobus (Venter) and the other mercenaries recalls the rise of private military companies in the 90s.
"The film deals with a whole bunch of topics that I think about. But I think you can choose how serious or not serious they are to the film because science-fiction gives you a veneer," asserts Blomkamp.
Almost in contradiction to the sci-fi vocabulary, Blomkamp has employed a number of filmic devices to situate the drama in reality, such as real footage of ordinary Joburgers commenting on an alien presence in their city and the docu-mentary idiom which mediates the early parts of the film, relaying the history of the "Prawns" and how they came to be in Joburg. In this way Blomkamp's fantasy is tinged with authenticity, which intensifies how one experiences the drama.

Blomkamp says he wanted to reinvent the sci-fi genre. "I am interested in all science fiction but I wanted to portray it as real, and the most real would be to make a full-on documentary about aliens arriving in Joburg, but the thing is that it would never make its money back."
The short film Alive in Joburg was the genesis for the feature and in creating that work Blomkamp simply set out to infuse a documentary-style film on Joburg with sci-fi elements.
"Joburg came first - I was really interested in Joburg in the same way that I am interested in Palestine. One day I realised I can put sci-fi into that setting. Aliens arriving on earth is a staple of science fiction. In order to keep the city you have to bring a foreign element to give it that sci-fi twist. The movie is not a particularly revolutionary sci-fi film; the ships, the weapons and the aliens are all familiar. The unfamiliar parts are Africa, the inspiration comes from Joburg."

Nevertheless, in casting Joburg as this den of inequity, or a supposedly dangerous and unforgiving African city which even advanced aliens aren't able to conquer, Blomkamp follows in the footsteps of a number of South African films such as Jerusalema, Tsotsi and SMS Sugarman, which all infer that this illustrious city infects its inhabitants, spreading corruption, greed and violence. In this regard, Blomkamp's film trades on established tropes. The xenophobic attacks of 2008 are also overtly evoked - linguistically it is easy to make the leap from aliens to illegal aliens, but also the manner in which the aliens are ostracised and packed off to live in makeshift camps in the movie recalls events in Joburg and other parts of South Africa during strife between locals and refugees. Watching the extraterrestrials being given the same treatment, one can't help feeling that District 9 engenders the notion that South African society remains locked in patterns that were set in the past and that different forms of prejudice are likely to play out over and over again.

As it happened, Blomkamp co-wrote the script with Terry Tatchell in 2007 - at least a year before xenophobic violence erupted across the country. At the time of the attacks, Blomkamp was prepping the film in Joburg. He grew concerned that his film would be misinterpreted.
"It meant that our script was putting forward the idea of black citizens wanting aliens out before it had become a serious problem. I worried that maybe it would seem insensitive or appear that we were poking fun at a topic that is so serious. But the flip side is that Alive in Joburg was obviously really touching on that powder-keg environment. At the time that I shot that short I didn't think that things would turn to that, and now it seems it could happen again."

Although Blomkamp was careful to be sensitive to the issue of prejudice against African nationals settled in South Africa, the character of Obasanjo (played by Eugene Khumbanyiwa), a Nigerian warlord who operates inside District 9, is a negative clichéd representation of a Nigerian. Not only is he cast as an unscrupulous criminal but all the pejorative notions about Africans are projected onto Obasanjo. He is reared on a diet of violence; after watching his parents butchered, he goes on to become a child soldier, tutored in rape and mayhem. A game of cricket played with grenades leaves him paralysed. He is corrupt, violent and power-hungry: an exaggerated African archetype.
"He doesn't believe in the system; he believes in guns and weapons. He knows that once he can tap into the alien weapons he will have the power. He is emotionless," suggests Khumbanyiwa.
In this way the film peddles an oversimplified view of Africans, which may account for its success abroad. A sci-fi film set in African certainly contributes towards an exotic quotient.
"Setting it in SA gives it that uniqueness; not a feeling of something being rehashed. It comes from outside that place. The idea was to put western science fiction in an unfamiliar setting. We have all seen aliens arriving in LA and this is odd. People like originality," notes Blomkamp.
In appropriating a largely American idiom Blomkamp does poke a finger at the West, subverting the traditional one-way cultural dialogue between the centre and the periphery. Blomkamp and many of his cast believe the issues the film raises are universal.
"The body horror of metamorphosis is universal - so is segregation and racism," observes Blomkamp.
"This movie makes people realise that racism doesn't really exist, that it doesn't have anything to do with what colour you are but to do with how different you are. We find it difficult to accept someone, anyone, who is different. In this case in District 9 the black people don't like the aliens, the white people don't like the aliens, so we segregate them. Why? Because we are unsure what they are all about. For me it is an interesting theme. It might make some people realise that a lot of unnecessary hate is not there because of race but because we are different, and teaches us to be more tolerant, " suggests Vanessa Haywood, who plays Tania, Wikus's wife.
"The movie does ask the question: is this human nature and how far have we come as human beings?" adds David James, who plays Kobus Venter, the renegade mercenary.
In its opening weekend in the US, District 9 grossed $37 million, proving its broad appeal. But as Carolynne Cunningham, one of the producers, observed: "The real test will be with South African audiences. Because it was made here it is important that it is liked here."
Its political subtext could either prove to be its main attraction or its pitfall. Regardless of which direction public opinion goes, the iconic image of a spaceship settled over Joburg will remain a flashpoint in the history of South African cinema. - published in The Sunday Independent and Sunday Tribune on August 30,2009.

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