Dir: Neill blomkamp
Gen: FROM WAR TO PEACE:ALIENS IN THE LAST 50 YEARS OF CINEMA
District 9 was unusually birthed when director Neil Blomkamp made a short film going around townships in South Africa asking about the recent influx of Zimbabwean immigrants, whose opinions he cut to fake news footage of an alien arrival. From this short, his budget was scaled up massively as his human residents share the same negative sentiment about the 1.1 million aliens who have taken refuge on earth in District 9, an impoverished holding camp in Johannesburg.
District 9 fits quite neatly into a specific trend in cinema where filmmakers were making extensive use of handi-cam footage, particularly within the horror and sci-fi genres like Cloverfield (2008), Paranormal Activity (2007) and even more mainstream films like Project X (2012). Starring Sharlto Copley, an actor with next to no feature film experience as Wikus Van Der Merwe, a South African agent tasked with coordinating the mass alien movement to a new government designated space. WIkus has a very interesting journey, as an accident with alien bio-technology early on gradually changes him into a sort of hybrid alien and he becomes a valuable commodity for social and military reasons.
The title of the film itself is a reference to District 6, a shameful time and place in the height of Apartheid South Africa where tens of thousands of poor, native residents were forced out of their homes as the government tried to clear a specific plot of land, instigating a whites only policy when coloured people made up 94% of the population in that area.
This idea is where much of the plot stems from. District 9 is about a society of aliens in conflict with humans, but its social circumstances reflect many of the worst power abuses and mistreatment of minorities of the last few centuries. The most obvious comparison is the aforementioned apartheid system that ravaged the native population of South Africa, but other instances like the United States’ movement of Native Americans into diseased camps and Blomkamp’s alien concentration camps reflecting those housing Jews in WWII make it clear that it is not solely influenced by South African history.
As a film it is presented as a media spectacle on two very different scales. On the one hand we spend a lot of the film on the ground with Wikus as he initially attempts to relocate the underclass aliens, with a single camera taking a rough and ready documentary approach with field interviews and lots of explanation. On the other hand, it is presented from the angle of the media, with studio interviews, tv broadcasts, news helicopter shots and radio broadcasts giving a lot of misleading context to the story as he becomes an enemy of the state. This gives two very distinct points of view. The angle of the few on the ground, actually in the action, and the angle of the state, sensationalising stories and spreading lies to promote their own agenda.
There’s a very interesting sub-plot regarding the Nigerian gangs’ practice of cannibalism, based on real-life superstitions that eating the flesh of enemies will grant them their strength. One warlord in particular is obsessed with muti (traditional African medicine) and absorbing the power of the physically superior aliens so that he can operate their bio-locked weapons. The gangs also act as a buffer between the aliens and the government, as they operate outwith the law but with sufficient power that they can offer protection, employment (mostly sex industry) and food that the alien refugees cannot afford to refuse. That being said, the overall response to the film in Nigeria was one of frustration at their poor depiction, so much so that they eventually banned it.
The parallels between the poor alien slums and black areas in South Africa and the US are stark. Wikus and his wife live in a beautiful, white gated community while the poor areas blast rap music and are crippled with crime. Wikus uses many racial slurs and is initially very dismissive and derogatory with his remarks. The word prawn is introduced early as the go-to slur for aliens, referring to their bottom feeding nature. He uses it callously before his circumstances change and he finds himself relying on alien help, at which point he begins to think about the power of his words and changes his attitude in order to survive. The main alien character, Christopher Johnson (easily interpretable as a black slave name) comes into play as Wikus’ attempted ejection of him and his son from their shanty house goes horribly wrong for all, and while on the run, Wikus falls victim to all of the same prejudices he helped perpetuate as a government agent.
The marketing for District 9 was another one of the early viral, guerrilla campaigns which had great success with simple but provocative imagery and words. The propaganda gave away very little about the premise of the film but proved very intriguing to audiences, with phone numbers to report alien sightings and fake blogs spinning stories from both the alien and government sides. Such innovative marketing methods sparked a change in marketing techniques for films aimed towards younger audiences and ushered in a much cheaper way to mass-market a film to a specific demographic.
The message and morals of District 9 are not hidden or cryptic like some of the others in our series. Its simplicity and obvious stance are partly why it has proven so popular, as it is accessible without being on the nose because it is an alien film first and foremost. The racial parallels are there if the audience wants to entertain them, but it can also be enjoyed for embracing very of-the-moment conventions like its rough, documentary style and unique marketing. That being said, it is definitely a more poignant film to an audience who have experienced racial prejudice than those who have known privilege or power in society, as its reception by governments, countries and high profile individuals across the world has interestingly varied in response.
Christopher Johnson is held at gunpoint as he and his son are relocated.
Where to watch
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.