District 9 - A Perspective From South Africa
A brainwavez.org Film Review

South Africaby Mandy J Watson
Posted: 10 September 2009brainwavez.org Comments View Comments

District 9, alien and all, is an intrinsically South African tale but with themes distilled for international audiences. In this, the second of brainwavez.org's District 9 reviews, we present a South African perspective of what has become a global phenomenon. We encourage you to compare it to our previous review, written from an American perspective, and then let us know your thoughts in the comments.

District 9
Please note: In order for me to discuss some of the themes in this film I had to include minor spoilers, which is something I prefer not to do but which was necessary in this instance for some of the points I felt I needed to make in order to present a well-rounded review. They won't, however, significantly impact your first experience of this movie. Those kinds of discussions will be retained for the comments section, so read this and avoid that if you haven't seen the movie yet and wish to be surprised.

District 9. I've been looking at my notes for over a week trying to decide what I should say about this movie. Should I be impressed that something intrinsically South African (I'll get to that in a moment) has both made a huge dent in the fickle annual US summer blockbuster extravaganza and pleased South Africans with its representation in the process? Should I rather be appalled at the stereotyping, lack of representation of women and black South Africans, and bizarre plot holes and non sequiturs that probably should be ripped to shreds (I'll get to some of that in a moment too; though most of it will be discussed in the comments), but which were partially obfuscated by fantastic special effects made on a (comparatively) low budget and creative filmmaking that make you lose track of the problems?

For weeks before its release I was convinced I was going to hate this movie. Even when the good international reviews started pouring in and I had been enjoying monitoring the extensive viral marketing campaign (although, when I say "extensive", I mean seemingly absolutely everywhere but here in South Africa) I was sure that I - a life-long science-fiction fanatic wanting nothing more than to see a science-fiction film set in this country as the precursor to the emergence of our country as the new science-fiction artistic mecca (tall order, I know, but I can dream) - would be disappointed by this film. All I could see was another South African endeavour recycling themes and the residuals of apartheid that have been infused in all our art - film, television, theatre, literature, poetry, painting, drawing, music, dance - for years. They are constantly analysed, reworked, reinvented, and repurposed but they are still there - in almost everything we produce. They may be novel to others but we have been living with these themes for decades. We can't escape it. It's like a great cultural psychological purge, except instead of anything actually being purged it just gets reinvented with more and more subtext that excites critics and makes me uneasy that we will ever get away from it, instead repeatedly choosing to trap ourselves in our past.

So I really didn't want to see this stuff all over again, just up on a big screen this time: a giant, open, cultural wound laid bare, reworked as popcorn entertainment for the (often tasteless) 18- to 24-year-old demographic.

With all this crap (or "baggage", as people who are more polite may refer to it) bouncing around in my head for weeks before the release I was almost afraid to go and see the movie and find all my worst fears realised on a very big screen or - worse - find that the movie is nothing more than the other Great South African Tragedy - an utter disappointment.

My actual experience, however, was something entirely different. While the allusions are there in the storytelling and there are many things (both positive and negative) that are very personal to South Africans in this movie, my overall impression, even though there are faults, was extremely positive.

District 9The movie is filmed documentary style and I think this was a masterful choice on the part of the filmmakers. The footage intersperses news footage and interviews with UN, humanitarian, and sociology experts talking primarily about the arrival of the aliens and its impact on South Africans and society, as well as interview footage of Wikus van de Merwe's friends and family that include foreshadowing comments to draw us into the intrigue, with footage taken on Wikus' first day of work as the head of an MNU (Multi-National United - the film's evil corporate entity) task force tasked with evicting the aliens legally (via their "mark" on a consenting form, one of the more overt allusions to apartheid) from District 9 to District 10: a relocation camp 200 miles away - literally out of sight and out of mind. (The name "District 9" and the relocation theme is a reference to District Six, a suburb of Cape Town near the CBD that experienced forced relocations in the 1960s of the original inhabitants - primarily Coloured people - so that the area could become a "white's only" area. The buildings, bar a handful including the church, where former residents still gather every Sunday for services, were subsequently razed by the apartheid government.) The footage of Wikus includes interview snippets in which he talks about his promotion (which, we are told, did not occur because he's married to the boss' daughter), his family, and his feelings regarding "the Prawns", which gives us a more rounded view of his personality and evokes both reactions of sympathy (for he doesn't appear to be a particularly smart man but he really loves his wife) and disgust (his obvious bigotry). Although we never see the documentary team we are very much made aware that they are there as Wikus (and others) occasionally address them personally and the footage is shot with hand-held cameras so when the action ramps up a bit you really experience it. I loved this approach and it was one of the main reasons that my opinion of the movie changed, as it really felt to me as though I was watching an extended episode of Carte Blanche. It was immensely immersive and real to me and is the closest accurate portrayal of my world that I've ever seen in a fictional context.

Within this introductory segment we are also introduced to the aliens from a human perspective, and the introduction is, from a sociological standpoint, unnerving. The aliens are portrayed unsympathetically as feral, scavenger beings who survive, half clothed, primarily in the District 9 township and who forage for remnants of technology, for which they seem to have a huge fascination, and cat food, for which they have an unquenchable thirst... to mix my metaphors badly. They are presented in a physically repulsive manner and it’s very difficult, as a movie viewer, to develop any sort of emotional bond concerning their plight until we are finally introduced to the film's second protagonist (or deuteragonist?), the alien Christopher Johnson, whose renaming to something more palatable to the human ear (to mix another metaphor) is another overt reference to apartheid and its practice of renaming black South Africans with English names more discernable and linguistically intelligible to the uneducated white South African ear. The reason presented for the representation and behaviour of the aliens, which are bigotedly referred to as "Prawns" in reference to their crustacean-like facial features and body appendages, as well as an inside nod to the South African cultural joke of the Parktown Prawn (Libanasidus vittatus, which was also amusingly explained to the uninitiated over at io9), is that most of the aliens are stranded "drone" workers from a societal hive collective, so we are left to presume that Christopher Johnson, and his equally endearing son, is from some higher caste within this society as he is intelligent and eventually elicits much more empathy from the audience than Wikus does as, within his plight, we are forced to face our own lack of humanity in viewing the aliens as lesser beings, which climaxes in a scene within the MNU stronghold.

District 9MNU, to introduce it properly, is the primary antagonist in this movie. It's one of those massive corporations that's a little bit of everything, everywhere, all the time, including being "the second-largest weapons manufacturer in the world" (possibly a subtle reference to the South African arms manufacturer Denel, had it had a more favourable fate). MNU's primary interest in the aliens is their advanced weaponry, which is genetically encoded in such a way that only aliens can utilise it; the weapons remain impotent in the hands of humans. MNU would like nothing better than to change that to its advantage. MNU is also the organisation tasked with relocating the aliens to the District 10 relocation camp in the form of the team led by Wikus, and much of the beginning of the movie is from the perspective of the documentary team following Wikus on this endeavour.

The one problem with the documentary style is that at a crucial point in the movie the documentary team leaves the storyline - you'll know exactly when it happens and understand why when you see the movie. Unfortunately, the hand-held documentary-style camerawork continues throughout the movie causing, for me, one of the biggest technical errors in the film. This section of the movie deals with the fate of Wikus during the period in which the public is wondering "what the hell happened to Wikus van de Merwe?", who has become a bit of a modern-day conspiracy theory perfectly suited to the alien theme. It's here, as we the viewers follow Wikus on his literal and figurative journey, that the technical filmmaking makes its hand-held mistake. It's confusing that the style doesn't change and I sat there wondering why they made this choice, especially since at the end of the movie the documentary style is then picked up again with "closing comments" from the experts and Wikus' family that beautifully rounds off the documentary and the movie, although the fictional characters' confusion and deliberations as to Wikus' fate (to which we, as the movie viewer, have some inkling but they don't) is very clear. I would have much preferred that in the middle section they either switched to traditional camerawork, possibly interspersed with CCTV footage snippets to add an extra dramatic layer ("we thought we saw Wikus downtown but it was so quick that we weren't sure" [cue grainy CCTV shot]). My other solution would have been to adjust the storyline slightly so that Wikus is on the run from MNU with one of the documentary guys who is sticking around because he's getting the visual scoop of his life, so he's actually on the run too because MNU won't want his footage to go public and perhaps, at the end, to preserve the integrity of the original ending, MNU gets the footage and only we, the viewer, become privy to it, much as we are the only ones privy to the fate of Wikus anyway. There's no reason why this had to be a "one (hu)man against the world" kind of storyline. You could throw another character into the mix quite easily to fix the camerawork issue (or just fix the camerawork issue).

District 9So, to recap, the way I see the movie is that it's a documentary about the aliens' arrival and the conspiratorial fate of Wikus van de Merwe, which becomes a hot topic for the fictional characters of Johannesburg 2010 (the year in which the movie is set), and for the movie viewer it's a screening of this documentary, only the pieces of the story that are missing to the characters in the movie are revealed to us so that we have a complete narrative. With bad camerawork decisions.

Nevertheless, I really did love the documentary segments (the proper ones). As I already mentioned, they couldn't have been more real to me as a South African and this (as well as the fantastic special effects) made suspension of disbelief regarding the alien storyline quite easy. The acting also superbly complemented this as this form of filmmaking really hinges on the ability of the actors to portray these roles in a way that doesn't ironically drift unintentionally into a mockumentary (unless that is the intention and in this case it certainly wouldn't have been). For this reason I am curious as to how international audiences have perceived the movie - general feeling seems to be that it was very unique - as it really couldn't be more South African. It's absolutely contemporary; it magnificently captures everyday life and our experiences.

Well, the everyday life of many white people and most middle-class people.

In the real South Africa the townships (and it should be noted that the scenes in the District 9 township were filmed in a real township - to give you some introduction to the extent of the poverty we face in South Africa) are filled with poverty-stricken black South Africans (who, in this movie, are hard to find at any economic level) and refugees and "displaced people" from other African countries, which creates tension as its perceived that the refugees are taking all our jobs and running crime syndicates that our ruining our country and so forth. One could argue that the real-life refugees are another kind of alien and therefore the humans versus space aliens theme is really just a metaphor for xenophobia and xenophobic violence that erupts regularly in South African townships as a result of these socio-political issues and is one of our dirty (not-so-secret) secrets. Unfortunately, even here the movie cops out of dealing with this issue in any more than a glancing manner because instead of addressing human versus alien themes as a way to address xenophobic issues it instead immediately introduces another antagonist - the Nigerians. And, (oh my god!) they're so much worse than the South Africans - quick! Quick! Focus on how they mess with voodoo and eat alien beings to imbibe their spirits and strength! Shocker!

District 9The scene in which the Nigerians are introduced to the audience is, I have to say, a fantastic piece of filmmaking and one of my favourite moments in the movie. A female sangoma (witchdoctor) writhes on the floor and then offers her muti (traditional medicine;"muti" means "medicine" in Zulu) to the leader of the Nigerians, a nasty, nasty piece of work named Obesandjo. (This name is phonetically almost identical to "Obasanjo", which has complex connotations for Nigerians as it is the name of the country's previous president; I can't personally comment about this as I am not well versed in Nigerian history but this BBC report from 2002 will give you an introduction to the complexities involved. The argument, however, has been that a less inflammatory name could have been used by the filmmakers if they had just done the slightest bit of homework, and to that I have to agree.) The muti offered is a piece of alien flesh and Obesandjo devours it with relish (figuratively), while the audience recoils in horror at the barbarism of it all.

Here, not to make light of the scene or the situation, I feel it is important to point out that this depiction, while highly dramaticised, is not completely fictional. In South Africa, and Africa, muti killings or muti murders, in which people, often children and babies, are killed and their "parts" are harvested to be used in illegal forms of traditional medicine, though not commonplace, do occur, much to the disgust of the general public [ read more here, although it is not for the faint hearted, or here ]. It is an ongoing social problem and one that is highly relevant reinvented for the fictional world of District 9.

As the bad guys the Nigerians spend a lot of time in the township among the aliens, running scams and making a fortune by selling cat food to the aliens and conning them out of their advanced weaponry, which the Nigerians then sell on the black market. They are destructive warmongers and present a very negative portrayal of black Africans, which isn't properly offset by positive portrayals elsewhere in the movie, as there are so few other black characters and they have minor roles. In the real world Nigerians have been, understandably, offended as this just plays on the negative stereotype of the Nigerian 419 scammer (and, as if to hammer home the point, the District 419 jokes have already started appearing on the Internet) but I saw one slightly more philosophical viewpoint that suggested that Nigerians have just replaced the Soviets as the exotic, but ultimately generic, film bad guy (to paraphrase). Nevertheless I can understand how Nigerians are offended at being repeatedly portrayed badly and I can only imagine the damage that it's doing to that country's psyche.

A more personal complaint that I have is the lack of women in this movie for no discernable reason bar lazy, unimaginative storytelling. The aliens are all men (their reproductive process is partly explained with flashy visuals that distract you before you can go "....but what about?...") and all the protagonists and antagonists are men. Women feature briefly, and most prominently, in the form of a sociology expert (one of the best minor roles in the movie) and a humanitarian aid worker in the interview segments of the documentary, and after that we are left with a brief scene with a female doctor; primarily interview segments with Wikus' insipid wife and mother; and some Nigerian hookers in the background (how their skills get utilised in this movie is best left to your viewing experience and imaginative leanings). It's misogynistic and unnecessary. Some balance, please.

District 9Finally, one aspect of the film that I can't comment on in this essay is the movie's sound design, one of my favourite aspects of filmmaking, along with score compositions. I made the mistake (unknowingly) of picking a (brand-new) cinema that doesn't have surround-sound capabilities. It is inconceivable to me that one would build a cinema these days without all the appropriate technologies but there you go - someone did - and I cursed the heavens when I realised, a few minutes into the movie that my first experience was being tainted by outdated technology. Unfortunately I haven't had time to see the movie again in a better cinema so I can only guess at what I've missed. I've heard wondrous tales of well executed surround-sound techniques from a number of people and Jase Luttrell, thankfully, does address this aspect of the filmmaking in his review.

My experience of the music fared a bit better, as at least I could hear it, but I have to admit that with everything else that was going on and all I was left to think about afterwards the score and soundtrack left very little impression on me. I know there was some kwaito and I recall hearing some marimbas but for the most part it passed me by, which to my mind means it wasn't strong enough to compete with and complement the visuals, and that is unfortunate.

The movie, thankfully, ended with enough of a satisfying conclusion that one doesn't feel cheated but enough areas were left open that it seems that a sequel (or prequel, or both) is inevitable and there is already buzz about it on the Internet. The filmmakers have set a high standard, both for the industry as a whole and for themselves, and I hope they are up to meeting, and perhaps surpassing, it. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, regardless of the technical and narrative errors, and am looking forward to seeing more outstanding work from these filmmakers.

brainwavez.org OpinionShare/Save/Bookmark
Rating: 8/10
In One Word: Complicated
    The Nigerians
    are at it again. Watch out!
    Hey!? Where are the chicks?

    Apartheid is there.
    So is xenophobia.
    We <3 SA's kak.

    I'm wif MNU.
    Ja, hey. I'm the sweetie man.
    I laaik to nail prawns.

(Sorry. I got carried away.)

Key Facts: District 9
Year: 2009
Running Time: 112 minutes (approx)
Genre: Action, Science Fiction, Thriller
Format: Feature; widescreen 1:85; colour
Language: English, Nyanja, Afrikaans
Country: USA, New Zealand
    Director: Neill Blomkamp
      Sharlto Copley ... Wikus Van De Merwe
      Jason Cope ... Grey Bradnam - UKNR Chief Correspondent / Christopher Johnson (voice)
      Nathalie Boltt ... Sarah Livingstone - Sociologist
      Sylvaine Strike ... Dr Katrina McKenzie
      John Sumner ... Les Feldman - MIL Engineer
      William Allen Young ... Dirk Michaels
      Nick Blake ... Francois Moraneu - CIV Engineer Team
      Jed Brophy ... James Hope - Police Officer
      Louis Minnaar ... Piet Smit
      Vanessa Haywood ... Tania Van De Merwe
      Marian Hooman ... Sandra Van De Merwe
      Vittorio Leonardi ... Michael Bloemstein - MNU Alien Civil Affairs
      Mandla Gaduka ... Fundiswa Mhlanga
      Johan van Schoor ... Nicolas Van De Merwe
      Stella Steenkamp ... Phyllis Sinderson - MNU Alien Relations
      David James ... Koobus Venter
      Kenneth Nkosi ... Thomas
      Tim Gordon ... Clive Henderson - Entomologist
      Siyabonga Radebe ... Obesandjo's Lieutenant
      Eugene Khumbanyiwa ... Obesandjo
      Bill Block ... executive producer
      Philippa Boyens ... co-producer
      Elliot Ferwerda ... co-executive producer
      Peter Jackson ... producer
      Ken Kamins ... executive producer
      Michael S. Murphey ... supervising producer
    Original Music: Clinton Shorter
    Cinematography: Trent Opaloch
    Film Editing: Julian Clarke
    Casting: Denton Douglas
    Production Design: Philip Ivey
    Art Direction: Emilia Roux
    Set Decoration: Guy Potgieter
    Costume Design: Dianna Cilliers
      [ full cast and crew ]

On The Internet
Official Site: District 9
Other Sites: IMDb | Rotten Tomatoes | Wikipedia | Yahoo! Movies

Elsewhere On brainwavez.org
Marketing District 9: The Real World Campaign The marketing campaign for District 9 was one of the most extensive ever seen... if you lived pretty much anywhere but in Africa, where it didn't exist. Simultaneous campaigns were run in the real world, using traditional marketing techniques that included billboards and posters, and online, using social-neworking sites and web sites. This article focusses on the real-world campaign, most notably as was seen in key cities in the US in the run-up to the movie's release.
By: Mandy J Watson  |  Posted: 18 September 2009  |  View Comments
Category: Screen > Film > Features

District 9 - US Perspective
Review: District 9 - A Perspective From America
It's very difficult not to have an opinion about District 9 so we thought we'd write two, independently, from different sides of the globe. In this review we feature the perspective from a member of the audience for which the movie was created, America, although other nationalities are certainly welcome to read it and are encouraged to comment (though they are also kindly asked to accept that the inadequacies of the film are an attempt to appeal to American audiences).
By: Jase Luttrell  |  Posted: 10 September 2009  |  View Comments
Category: Screen > Film > Reviews

Alive In Joburg
Review: Alive In Joburg
brainwavez.org is taking a step away from reality to explore the alternate, alien-filled world of Neill Blomkamp's Alive In Joburg, the short film shot in 2005 that forms the basis for this year's blockbuster film District 9. Hopefully, if you can see past the poncho-wearing, grotesque aliens and the abundant anachronisms of the short, you will enjoy the splendid squalor of stranded aliens. Or something.
By: Jase Luttrell  |  Posted: 1 September 2009  |  View Comments
Category: Screen > Shorts > Reviews

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