/ 28 August 2009

Loving the aliens

It’s often easy for South Africans to imagine they live in an alternative reality. Maybe that’s why District 9, driven by the South African experience of its director, Neill Blomkamp, who lived here until his late teens, works so well.

Imagine that we’ve had a vast alien spaceship hovering over Johannesburg for two decades now. It’s not clear why it arrived here and not New York or London, and it’s not clear why it came to a halt, or even how it remains aloft. But there it is.

Had this happened during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, we’d probably have had a stern denial from the Presidency that there was an alien space ship up there at all. Then, under enormous pressure from a populace that trusts its own eyes, we’d have had a grudging presidential acceptance that there was, in fact, no doubt a perception that there is a space ship up there.

Such a perception would doubtless be blamed on white racism, and/or a conspiracy of agents of the ancien régime, the Third Force and the ultra-left. Then it would have been referred to the African Union or the Pan-African Parliament to put together a thinktank to determine an appropriate policy, complete with unpronounceable acronym. That would take another 20 years.

Anyway, that’s one way of interpreting what has happened in District 9. As the film opens, the space ship is there. We are told by various commentators, in earnest documentary style, complete with talking heads, that we kind humans rescued the debilitated aliens from the space ship and quarantined them in a resettlement camp, known as District 9, in Soweto. Now there are social problems to do with the aliens’ presence, so they have to be moved to a camp outside of town.

This part of the film is brilliantly done. The documentary or mock-umentary bits are perfectly attuned to how such events usually play out; you could see these inserts on TV and not bat an eyelid. The doccie form also allows the filmmakers to fill in background quickly and often humorously without going into too much detail.

Much is left unexplained, so viewers will have to work it out: for instance, how come the aliens and humans, who speak such different tongues, understand each other? (Later in the film, there is an explanatory gap around a substance that is both space-ship fuel and infectious species-transmuting agent, but we’ll leave that to the DVD extras, when they land, or to the net geeks who ponder such mysteries.)

District 9‘s references to apartheid are obvious, from the title echoing District Six onwards. The signs declaring certain spaces “for humans only” are clever — as well as a key part of the film’s highly successful marketing campaign.

The forced removals that are now in process are, too, an echo of apartheid, though the presence of what look suspiciously like Red Ants is very contemporary. What’s also very contemporary is that the removals are being conducted by a huge multinational rather than the state. In fact, the state is conspicuous by its absence here.

There are also resonances with the recent xenophobic outbreaks, though the film was begun before they exploded.

Nonetheless, it’s quite logical to see xenophobia as part of the package, and a kind of anti-xenophobic message is definitely part of the film’s moral, insofar as it has one: ultimately, you could paraphrase its quasi-moral argument as, “Aliens are human too.” Or, at least, “Aliens have feelings too.” It’s notable, though, that although our sympathies for the aliens are gradually solicited, the Nigerians operating from District 9 are presented as utterly beyond the pale in every respect.

Wickus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the man tasked with coordinating the removal of the aliens, known locally as “prawns”. There begins Wickus’s unexpected engagement with alien life, which leads to much twisty action as the film progresses.

The mockumentary style gives way to a more conventional plotline, and a certain amount of predictability begins to creep in. Still, the elements of chase thriller, outsider story, icky horror, science fiction and so-called “human drama” are exceptionally well coordinated and add up to a riveting and often very amusing narrative.

The humour makes a huge difference; it gives District 9 a satiric edge that works a treat. It means we shouldn’t take this too seriously, or see the apartheid echoes as more than backdrop. Wickus himself is a very funny character, an ordinary doos trapped in circumstances beyond his ken.

That Afrikaans accent, so heavily identified with evil security policemen in the movies, now takes on the ring of a rather touching naivety. One is rather surprised that, if the film is set in an alternative present, he’s a Van der Merwe and not, say, a Malefane or a Talane, but there are at least a few spots for the likes of Kenneth Nkosi to do their bit.

It’s also great to see Jo’burg on screen — a dusty, gritty, sun-bleached Jo’burg. And Jo’burg plays itself. South African cities too often masquerade as European or American cities in movies made here, but in District 9 you really feel Jo’burg as Jo’burg around you. That it’s a Jo’burg run by multinationals and not the state, and struggling uncertainly with aliens in its midst, is not terribly implausible at all.