PATRICK HARRISON ON DISTRICT 9
in artforum.com on August 14, 2009
SOUTH AFRICAN–BORN DIRECTOR Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) wants badly to be a film of the kind and caliber of Children of Men (2006): a thoughtful, left-leaning treatment of contemporary political issues that doubles as an accessible sci-fi thriller. The movie begins as a mock documentary, complete with talking heads and staged “archival” footage outlining a scenario in which aliens land in Johannesburg, their spaceship having run out of fuel during an escape from a disaster on another planet. The South African government, acting more out of concern for its image than the aliens’ wellbeing, takes them in as refugees and relocates them to District 9, a shantytown-cum–concentration camp, where they live under the custodianship of a corporation called Multi-National United. This expository sequence is essentially an expanded version of Blomkamp’s 2005 short Alive in Joburg, which uncannily reframed actual documentary footage of police brutality and anti-apartheid marches as science fiction.
District 9 departs from the Alive in Joburg storyline when it introduces Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a casually bigoted MNU official and the movie’s dim-witted protagonist. He is accidentally infected by an alien virus twenty-eight years after the events described in the prologue: The disease slowly transforms him into “one of them” and, conveniently, enables him to use the aliens’ coveted DNA-activated weaponry. Wikus is pursued by MNU’s private military, and in order to save his skin he forges an uncertain alliance with an alien father and son (though lacking any concept of private property, the aliens still form Spielbergian nuclear families), who agree to cure Wikus if he helps them to escape District 9.
The film’s political implications are clear, though its specifically post-apartheid resonances have understandably been lost on many American critics. Up to 8 percent of South Africa’s population are illegal immigrants, the largest contingent of which comprises refugees from the political violence and economic free-fall in neighboring Zimbabwe. The South African government has taken a harder line against illegal immigrants since the end of apartheid, with xenophobic rhetoric gaining traction in mainstream political discourse and deportations increasing almost 20 percent in the past five years alone.
An ersatz television news broadcast about anti-alien riots in District 9 alludes to the dramatic rise of violence against immigrants since democratization. Blomkamp was filming in Soweto in May 2008, when a series of devastating anti-immigration riots broke out across South Africa that killed over sixty people, a third of whom were naturalized citizens murdered because of racist sentiments fueled by xenophobia. (Immigrants from elsewhere in Africa are considered darker skinned than South African blacks.) District 9 itself recalls Lindela Repatriation Centre, the largest deportation processing camp in South Africa. A privately run, highly militarized facility that holds illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, Lindela has become South Africa’s Guantanamo Bay, its name synonymous with gruesome reports of detainee abuse, rapes, “accidental” deaths, indefinite detentions, and material deprivation.
More than mere stand-ins for illegal immigrants, Blomkamp’s repulsive, trash-eating, delinquent aliens function as abject manifestations of respectable society’s unspoken, paranoid fantasies about the lives of the poor. In one of the more direct real-life parallels, an interactive map on the marketing website for District 9 shows that the fictional alien camps are geographically coextensive with the impoverished township areas of Timbesa, Kartorus, and Soweto. Approximately a third of the population of South Africa inhabits such so-called slums, where half the residents live in improvised shacks made of spare wood and corrugated metal.
In District 9, Wikus’s grotesque physical transformation allegorizes anxieties that are as much about class as xenophobic racism, especially in a few scenes that focus on the surreal disruption of Wikus’s middle-class existence. In one, his teeth and fingernails begin to fall out as he works at his office desk; in another, the sight of him sends people screaming from a fast food restaurant. (Wikus, ever the bureaucrat, insists that it’s illegal for the restaurant to deny him service.) Wikus’s dilemma dramatizes the paranoia pervasive in a society that arbitrarily dehumanize whole sectors of its own population: the fear that anyone, at anytime, can become the reviled Other.
With so many trenchant ideas, it is a pity that the film abandons most of them in their larval stage. A needless subplot involving Nigerian gangsters undermines the film’s anti-xenophobic message. The delight that District 9 takes in depicting the slaughter of aliens and laughing at their grotesquerie plays too closely at the border between critique and mere symptom. Whereas Alive in Joburg featured performances by numerous South African township residents, District 9 lacks the visible involvement of those South Africans for whom it seems to want to speak. Yet such lapses are too predictable to spoil the film’s insights entirely, and its laudable lack of resolution at least ensures that audiences will leave theaters as disquieted as they are entertained.
District 9 opens August 14.
— Patrick Harrison