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27 Aug 2009 08:48
Aliens from outer space are crawling out of the walls in Soweto. But it’s not an invasion, it’s a cause for celebration.
South Africans are finding all kinds of ways to express pride about District 9, a locally produced movie that has turned into a blockbuster in the United States.
Filmed for only $30-million, it more than returned costs when it garnered $37-million on its opening weekend in the US.
For good measure, it charted much better than some films with significantly larger budgets.
US movie-goers aren’t the only ones who are surprised.
District 9 isn’t just a low-budget film. Its appeal lies in using unknown newcomers for key roles and setting them in a high-tech genre that sometimes contrasts sharply with the South African setting.
The film is about aliens from outer space whose damaged spaceship has been floating over Johannesburg for almost three decades, like a metallic cloud. Its inhabitants are cooped up in a giant refugee camp where crime, unemployment, alcoholism and lack of public service colour everyday life.
Just like in real life, locals start demanding the eviction of their unwanted neighbours.
In some ways, the film unintentionally became a kind of social satire.
“It was a sort of irony that we were filming about alien refugees in Soweto a week before violence against foreigners broke out in the township of Alexandra,” said Sharlto Copley, who plays the main character, Wikus van der Merwe.
Thus, while the Soweto suburb of Tshiawelo was dealing with cinematic issues of segregation, xenophobia and brutal attacks in May 2008, the genuine article was playing out just a few kilometres away, in bloody reality.
Thousands of foreigners were brutally forced out, while dozens were wounded and killed in a wave of xenophobic attacks.
But the similarities between art and South African life don’t end there. Even the title, District 9, harkened back to District Six, a well-known coloured district of Cape Town, where a broad mix of people were forced out thanks to the old government’s apartheid policies.
The filming was completed in just two months under the direction of South Africa-born Neill Blomkamp (29).
The local tie also means it’s no surprise that the aliens are named after Johannesburg’s Parktown prawns
In the film, the prawns seem to be completely incomprehensible beings from outer space, until a series of events—broadcast live on international TV—changes everyone’s mind.
The unexpected success of the movie is turning into a significant boost for South Africa’s film industry. Relatively young, it has, nonetheless, established the country as a good filming location with decent infrastructure.
There is a market growing abroad for South African films like the gangster-movie Tsotsi or the operatic film version of U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha—both of which have put the quality of South African films firmly in the spotlight.—Sapa-dpa
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