District 9: alien, yet all-too familiar

A South African living in London finds Neill Blomkamp’s tale of an alien shanty town both compelling and uncomfortable.

Sharmini Brookes

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The residents of the wealthy northern suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa, have long been plagued by the notorious Parktown prawns, a cricket species that look like cockroaches. In the film District 9, Johannesburg residents have grown hostile to an extraterrestrial race, nicknamed ‘prawns’, who have been living in slum-like conditions since their starship got stranded over the city 20 years ago.

The ‘prawns’ are ten-foot tall, robot-like creatures with springy legs and disgusting tentacle-like protuberances around the mouth. I wonder if it was those Parktown prawns that inspired Neill Blomkamp, the South African-born co-writer and director of District 9.

District 9 is something unusual: a sci-fi film set in South Africa where the aliens are on Earth involuntarily, and are victims rather than menacing invaders. As a South African, I saw the film as an intriguing parable of past and present-day South Africa. It is a compelling and unsettling film.

The film shifts between conventional narrative style and mockumentary format, with handheld camera shots, interviews and clips from news reports. While the aliens were welcomed by the Johannesburg residents when they were first found starving to death in the spaceship that two decades on is still hovering over the city, hospitality towards the stranded ‘prawns’ has dried up. They have come to be seen as a problem that needs to be dealt with drastically.

The aliens are contained like undesirables in the horrific encampment of tin shacks and rotting waste dumps of District 9 at the outskirts of Johannesburg. The circumstances there recall those of real black townships in South Africa under apartheid.

In fact, the story of District 9 in the film is all-too reminiscent of District Six, an area in Cape Town that was dismantled by the apartheid regime in the Sixties and Seventies. Nearly 70,000 people were evicted from District Six, which was declared a ‘whites only’ area (1). The residents were forcibly moved to Cape Flats, an area which still exists today. In the film, real-life residents of another squatter camp, Chiawelo in Soweto, were paid ‘pocket money’ to act as extras and help create an authentic backdrop (2).

District 9’s protagonist is Wikus van der Merwe. The name is apt: Van der Merwe is the surname of choice for the stock comic figure in South African society – the pragmatic, but naive and blundering Afrikaner. Wikus works in the Aliens Section of the private security firm, Multi-National United (MNU). He is tasked with organising the eviction of the aliens from District 9 to an even more remote encampment in District 10, a job he happily accepts. While District 10 appears to be a nicer place, in reality it is more like a concentration camp. It is cut off from all the trading links that the aliens have built up and they do not want to move.

Wikus’ bluff geniality and effort to appear reasonable to his fellow humans belies his contempt for the aliens, illustrated by his somewhat off-hand ruthlessness in destroying a nursery of baby aliens. This is very similar to how the apartheid security forces dealt with the ‘native’ and ‘inferior’ races. Today, the eviction of squatters from camps continues in different forms, but it still raises concerns about the treatment of migrants in South Africa by the newly-liberated indigenous population and its elected government.

In the film, the Nigerians are a new force in the new South Africa; both feared and envied in equal measure for their brashness and ruthless entrepreneurship. They can sell cat food to a prawn – and they do! Based in the heart of the alien squatter camp, they trade cat food for alien weaponry, but to their dismay the weapons can’t be used by a human hand. The Nigerians believe that by eating the hand of an alien, they can assume its power and use the weapons to take control – a traditional African practice familiar to all South Africans and known as muti.

The twist in the tale is the role reversal forced upon Wikus. He is unwittingly contaminated by alien bio-matter during a raid on an alien ‘gangster’ flat and to his horror sprouts a prawn arm. This physical metamorphosis precedes a moral transformation as Wikus discovers what it means to be alien. Suddenly, he is an object to be toyed with between the state and the fearsome Nigerians, ultimately coming to side with the aliens.

The final chase scenes with helicopters throbbing overhead and armed white vans roaring around the camp and firing indiscriminately takes one back to Sharpeville in the Sixties and Soweto in the Seventies and Eighties. Yet the scenes manage to be more frighteningly intense than all the TV footage of those events.

While District 9 is very rooted in South Africa’s experience, the film offers a commentary on more universal themes. The shunting of people living in squalor from one place to another, with both positive and negative consequences, is repeated across the world – from the shanty towns of Mumbai to the squatter camps of migrants in Calais, France trying to make it to the UK.

As a black South African, the racism experienced in District 9 by the aliens is all too familiar to me. Ironically, I felt it more coming to the UK in the Seventies than I had under apartheid. While in South Africa, racism was truly institutionalised, it was rarely personal because the different groups in society were so utterly separated. It was only in London that I truly understood the feeling of being an outsider.

District 9 also asks what it means to be human. When Wikus becomes infected, he is suddenly no longer unequivocally human, but nor is he really an alien. The consequences for Wikus are stark in the context of the film. Blomkamp seems ultimately ambiguous about whether being human is such a good thing, but he does at least leave it to the viewers to consider the question for themselves.

Sharmini Brookes is a South African-born freelance writer living in London and is convenor of the debate South Africa – 15 Years After Apartheid on Sunday 1 November at the Battle of Ideas festival.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Alien Nation, Newsweek, 27 August 2009

(2) Squatter camp residents split over sci-film crew shooting in township in Johannesburg, Guardian, 3 September 2009

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