An Allegory of Apartheid

District 9
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This is South Africa’s greatest contribution to the film industry. It was, quite remarkably, produced by Peter Jackson, the iconic creator of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and, less remarkably, directed by Neill Blomkamp – at the time an inexperienced, and unknown, director.

This film is clearly, often painfully, often gloriously, South African – the SABC news interviews, the strong (and hilarious) accents, and the pervasive complaints of corruption. The rough, low-budget patina – created using deliberately grainy images, crackling audio and shaky shots – enhances the South African-ness.

Another very South African aspect of the film is its themes: the forced evictions during Apartheid, and xenophobia – both still very pertinent. District 9 is an allusion to Cape Town’s District Six, where over 60 000 inhabitants were forcibly removed during Apartheid. Blomkamp portrays the ignorance of the Afrikaner majority, who were oblivious to what was happening in the country, South Africans’ hatred of “aliens” (illegal immigrants), and, upon realising the horrors of Apartheid, the intense and fear-driven denial of the Afrikaner. This is the most powerful line in the film, spoken by Wikus (who is at that point half-alien and half-human) to the son of an alien leader: “We’re not the same. We’re not the focking same!”. His fervent protest is the protest of the Afrikaner, denying his kinship and responsibility to the black man.

This is, if we must assign a genre, a sci-fi action movie. But that is entirely misleading. It is an action movie unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. It blends comedy and conflict – not crudely, to create gung-ho heroes, as Hollywood often does – but to create contrast, between the blithe, childlike ignorance of Wikus (who represents the clueless white majority during Apartheid) and scenes of horror, which he makes light of. A single, powerful example suffices to demonstrate this: the MNU aborting alien eggs (using a flamethrower). Wikus stands alongside, and, with his deliberately ridiculous accent, compares the screams of the alien fetuses as they explode to “popcorn”. It was a horrible, pitiful scene, enhanced – made garish and tragic – by humour. Brilliant.

District 9 is riveting, as a good action movie must be (I found, to my consternation, that my fingernails were noticeably shorter after the film), but it remains emotionally and intellectually charged, an achievement few action thrillers can lay claim to.

If we must criticise the film, we can say it peddles a “white saviour” narrative, and stereotypes Nigerians. And, unfortunately, as Roger Ebert accurately remarked: “the third act is disappointing, involving standard shoot-out action. No attempt is made to resolve the situation, and if that’s a happy ending, I’ve seen happier. Despite its creativity, the film remains space opera and avoids the higher realms of science-fiction.” I agree, in part, that the “third act” degrades the film, with far too much cheap (but very expensive) Hollywood action.

The ending is poignant, yet strikes a note of victory: not tragic, but also not fairy-tale-happy. I would disagree with Ebert, and say it was a satisfying conclusion.

It warms my heart to see such cinematic boldness and excellence coming from South Africa.


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