Aliens in Johannesburg

'District 9' comments on contemporary politics about domination, race and immigration, especially in South Africa.

Still from the fictional movie. "District 9."

You can’t miss the posters for “District 9” plastered all over Manhattan. The film opens worldwide in cinemas tomorrow.  From the film’s website, its marketing budget and media coverage, this is definitely a Hollywood film. Here’s the plot: Aliens land in Johannesburg, South Africa and are housed in a shantytown for at least 20 years when the government tries to relocate them.  The story is what happens during the relocation. Word is the film follows the usual usual science fiction plot turns, and comes with the required special effects, but it also does something else: it comments on contemporary politics about domination, race and immigration, especially in South Africa.

The film expands the plot of a 2005 Blomkamp short film, “Alive in Joburg.”

The film’s 29 year old director, Neill Blomkamp, told The New York Times that it amounts to a science-fiction parable for South Africa’s segregationist history: “The whole film exists because of that … I was trying to make the science fiction feel vaguely familiar. The South African component would be the alien component.”

That leads The Times reporter to observe:

The plight of the film’s crustaceanlike extraterrestrials can be easily read as a metaphor for the persecution of South African blacks under apartheid. But Mr. Blomkamp said he was also trying to comment on how the country’s impoverished peoples oppress one another. While “District 9” was being filmed in the Chiawelo section of Soweto, Alexandra and other townships were ravaged by outbursts of xenophobic violence perpetrated by indigenous South Africans upon illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi and elsewhere.

And the Village Voice’s Scott Foundas suggests:

With its corrugated tin sheds and abject poverty, District 9 stands in for the township settlements where more than a million South African blacks still live without basic human services, two decades after the end of apartheid. But you don’t have to squint too hard to also see the itinerant community as an all-purpose analog for the ghettos of Nazi Germany, America’s inner cities, and all of those other places where unwanted, powerless peoples have been herded off far from the backyards of the ruling class. Blomkamp’s touch, however, is anything but heavy.

And here is Salon.com‘s Andrew O’Hehir:

Amid the late-summer doldrums of studio leftovers, Blomkamp’s resulting feature-film debut, “District 9,” stands out as the science-fiction film of the year. (That’s with all due respect to J.J. Abrams’ enjoyable exercise in “Star Trek” meta-nostalgia.) Consider the fact that it was shot in South Africa without recognizable acting talent, on a budget that wouldn’t furnish Michael Bay’s assistant’s trailer, and it might be the sci-fi surprise of this entire decade. Blomkamp cut his teeth in the entertainment industry doing digital effects for such TV series as “Stargate SG-1” and “Smallville,” and, yes, there’s ample technical wizardry on display. But “District 9,” thankfully, is a lot more than kickass digital fight scenes. It’s a grimy, consistently surprising and fundamentally human-centric science-fiction yarn, reminiscent of the dystopian, semi-realistic 1970s tradition.

Also, O’Hehir’s piece comes with a question-and-answer session with Blomkamp. Here’s some highlights:

O’Hehir: You have this fascinating premise, where we’re thrown into this world in which aliens have lived on Earth for 20 or 30 years, and they just happen to be confined to the Johannesburg townships, in a situation very reminiscent of apartheid. Talk about how your background, growing up in that time and place, influenced this story.

Blomkamp: Well, I think there’s no question that the movie is a condensation of all the elements in Joburg that had an effect on me when I was growing up. Which means it couldn’t have been set anywhere else. In my mind, the film doesn’t exist other than in Joburg. It was like, Johannesburg first, and “District 9” grew out of that. There are many different levels you can break it down into. From a photographic standpoint, there was what I wanted to convey about Johannesburg, which is that it’s almost this burnt, nuclear wasteland, at least in winter. It really is like that.

O’Hehir: Then there’s this constant sense of an urban prison, with razor wire and electric fences and armed guards everywhere. It’s a very oppressive-feeling city. I wanted to capture the essence of that, and I thought it was really cool to put science fiction in that environment. I wanted to see science fiction in that city. I mean, I lived there, and you don’t come across cities like that much, especially not in the First World. They don’t exist.

Blomkamp: So that was the primary reason for making “District 9.” No allegories, no metaphors, nothing. Just science fiction in Joburg. Then, as the idea began to unfold, I started to realize that actually this includes all the topics that have formed my outlook on the whole world. My upbringing in that city had a massive effect on me, and I started to realize that everything to do with segregation and apartheid, and now the new xenophobic stuff that’s happening in the city, all of that dominates my mind, quite a lot of the time. Then there’s the fact that science fiction is the other big part of my mind, and I started to realize that the two fit well together. There’s no message, per se, that I’m trying to get across with the movie. It’s rather that I want to present science fiction, and put it in the environment that affected me. In the process, maybe I highlight all the topics that interest me, but I’m not giving any answers. You can take from it what you will.

O’Hehir: Now, you left South Africa when you were a teenager, right?

Blomkamp: Yeah, I was around 18 when we moved to Vancouver. It was 10 years ago, or a little more than that.

O’Hehir: So does this story take place in contemporary South Africa, or further back, closer to the apartheid era?

Blomkamp: It’s the present. It’s totally the present. I’ve gone back every year, so it’s not like I went back a decade later and was shocked by the changes. I’ve watched the city’s gradual changes. It’s more like this is an alternate reality of contemporary Joburg. In my mind, a black government is in control, and I assume that the white government — with apartheid ending in 1994 — did the same thing to the aliens.

I want to see this film.

Further Reading

Mobilizing in disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.