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becoming the alien: apartheid, racism and district 9

September 4, 2009

Warning: spoilers follow!

district9

You have to admit: As a premise for a movie it is pretty unpromising. An alien spaceship comes to rest over Johannesburg.  Instead of conquering the planet, the aliens turn out to be in crisis: malnourished and in need of rescuing.  They end up living in a local slum, crammed together in a rusty shantytown.  When human Joburgers complain, a company is called in to move them – but things get out of hand, and it all escalates into car chases and gun-fights.   Stated like this, who would be blamed for deciding to give it a miss? It is hard to figure out what kind of movie it could be.  Some kind of half-baked take on District 6, set in the wrong city?  An American skop skiet en donder movie, with Parktown Prawns as the baddies?    When I first heard about the movie, I dismissed it without a thought; and indeed, even today, with the movie doing well at the box office, some reviewers and commentators seem reluctant to take it seriously.

Well, I’ve been to see it and I personally think it is the best movie I have yet seen about South Africa – and specifically, one of the most pentetrating, disconcerting and subversive meditations  on the nature of racism and repression in the post-colonial world.  District 9 is fresh and transgressive, hilariously funny and absolutely horrifying:  brutal,  sly,  streetwise  and in your face. It’s not a voice from the ghetto  – it is, completely and incontrovertibly, a white voice – but is a voice from the postcolonial periphery; a voice speaking harshly, grittily and urgently about the surrealism of racism and the confluence of violence and normality here at the edges of the West’s old empire.

But to whom does it speak?  Throughout the  film, one of my most recurrent thoughts was: how many people who are not from this country  will get what is going on here?  So many of its references, points and jokes  would make sense only to someone who lived here during the years of Apartheid.  To some extent the movie is successful because it works on two levels: an international audience can enjoy it simply as a sci-fi thriller, while at the same time there is another layer of meaning, accessible only to those who share the filmmaker’s cultural and political frame of reference.  But the key to the film, its centre, lies in its local subtext – while its iconography and genre conventions would be familiar only to hardcore science fiction aficionados.

In some ways, of course, the film’s insistent local-ness is the first thing most critics have noticed about it.  The South African mise en scene is  precisely and affectionately realised.   It’s all there, and beautifully done:  the welter of South African accents, black and white (so thick that the producers give us subtitles much of the time),  the incessant Afrikaans swearing and obscenity; the endless  local cultural references. The movie has a lot of fun with this, parading its provincial roots with a kind of delighted embarassment.  The hero Wikus’s tacky Benoni home; his awful relatives; his fading-beauty of a wife;  the earnest academics from ‘Kempton Park University,’ spouting platitudes at the camera in their crap hairstyles and shabby academic clothes… we’ve seen it all a million times before, on Special Assignment and Carte Blanche. All the delights of our own ethnoscape – all the more pleasing because it is done with such a light, subversive touch. No wonder South African audiences love it:  at the screening where I saw it, the darkness was alive with ripples of laughter throughout the movie.

But more is at stake here.  This is not just a remake of Alien with people shouting fok a lot. The movie’s verisimilitude comes with an agenda, and the reality it seeks to describe is very specific.  For what you seeing is not just South Africa, but that South Africa that we think we’ve left behind, that we think we’ve forgotten …  until you come across a reminder that brings it home to you so forcefully that you realise you’ve never left: Apartheid South Africa; State of Emergency South Africa; forced removal South Africa.  This is at the centre of the extended set-piece that forms the heart of the first part of the movie – the long, chaotic sequence where the hired mercenaries and functionaries of  MNU, the firm to which the government has outsourced the task of the ‘clean up’ of the ghetto, have their first encounter with the reluctant, soon-to-be-displaced Alien population.  It is  a cinematic tour de force; one of the most sustained and brilliant pieces of filmmaking I can recall seeing  —  but I wonder whether any of the movie’s international audience will even understand  a fraction of what is going on here.

arts-district9-584

Forced removal, 21st-century style

As anyone who lived with any kind of political awareness through the eighteen years between 1976 and 1994 in South Africa will immediately see, what the film is doing here is to give you an almost obsessively focussed, insistently detailed account of the workings of  the Apartheid state’s repressive apparatus as it existed during the regime’s most conflictual years.  Apartheid repression was never just about violence. Instead, it was a strange and carefully composed mix of brutal force, racist anthropology, Foucauldian surveillance, and a curious, bureaucratic obsession with the appearance of due process and the rule of law.  Every single thing you see in this scene  – the harassed, edgy bureaucrats with their clipboards and their explanations; the ludicrous attempts to get the aliens to sign the consent forms prior to their removal to the tent town; the prowling military thugs; the constant threat of violence, spiralling out of control; the chaos and confusion – all of it is precisely how it all worked.  Watching it, I suddenly remembered, with vertiginous clarity: Crossroads.  KTC. The Witdoeke.  Jeff Benzien. Dolf Odendaal.  Some of you reading this blog – you were there too. You know of whom and of what I speak.

wikus-van-der-merwe

Wikus

What makes it brilliant cinema, of course – what makes it all come together as it does, is not just this accuracy; not even the disorienting, vertiginous, documentary-style way in which Blomkamp renders the almost-out-of-control chaos of the engagement. It is above all, the figure of Wikus van der Merwe, surely one of the most unlikely protagonists that cinema has produced in a long while. One of the high points of a pretty impressive performance on the part of the actor Sharlto Copley is his rendition of Wikus during the forced removal, half the time trying to control the whole mad show, and half the time acting as a kind of crazed, geeky curator, speed-talking at the camera and describing in awful English every aspect of what is going on.

The whole point of Wikus, of course, is that he is such a prat. He is thick as a plank. He is awful. He is as unlike a Bruce Willis or a Samuel Jackson as it is possible to be –  and this is at least partly because he is Afrikaans. He is not just Afrikaans, he is a rockspider. He is a doos, a chop, a moegoe. He mangles English with hilarious ineptness. He is cringe-makingly uncool: cheesily in love with his ‘angel’ wife, dorkily clumsy in front of the camera, cravenly obedient to authority,  crudely bullying to the aliens that he deals with, and horrifyingly inept in his dealings with his Black underlings, whom he patronizes with cheery ignorance.  At the same time, in his earnestness, in his desire to be liked, in his bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eagerness to make a success of this impossible, chaotic, disaster of a job, one cannot but like him.

At one level, the character of   Wikus allows the movie to have a huge amount of satirical fun with the stupidity and ignorance of his outlook and what he represents, for of course Wikus’s exasperated encounters with angry, uncomprehending, resistant aliens precisely mimic and pillory the carryings-on Apartheid officialdom at its crude and idiotic worst.  One of the funniest standing jokes in the movie is Wikus’s relationship with the alien whom he refers to throughout the film as Christopher Johnson. (‘I cannot do the clicks’).  From time to time Wikus will stop, fix the camera with his glowing eyes, and start talking about what ‘the Prawn’ needs; what ‘the Prawn’ should do.   That was precisely t way in which Apartheid officials used to pontificate about  the nature of ‘the Black man’ or ‘the Bantu.’

district9seven_500

'Christopher Johnson.'

But this not all that is going on. For all of its attention to historical echoes, District 9 is not simply an allegory about forced removals, and the aliens in the movie are not black South Africans in disguise.  Rather, what is happening here is something altogether more significant and ambitious: the metaphors and tropes of science fiction are being used to engage rather more deeply and disconcertingly with the nature of racism itself – with the way that racist ideology and discourse deals with the feared, hated, despised  (and desired!) ‘Other.’

This is the heart of the film. In many ways the most disturbing and unsettling aspect of the movie is the rendition of the aliens themselves, who appear like nothing so much as huge, quasi-human cockroaches.  They are ‘prawns’, they are ‘bottom feeders’, they appear to be addicted to giant tins of blue cat food; they live on rubbish dumps, they breed.  They are disgusting.  And that is the point. For  – if I may be allowed to wax academic for a bit – the figures of  the aliens are, in a sense, nothing other than the exaggerated, concrete rendering of the way in which racist discourse depicts its objects: the way Nazism talked about ‘the Jew’ and Apartheid ideology talked about ‘Coloureds';  the way present-day  white racists in Europe (and black and white xenophobes down here!)  talk about immigrants; the way Radio Interahamwe talked about Tutsis.  By presenting the aliens to us, not as attractive, noble creatures, by making them half-human and half insect, the film constantly trips us up by making the racist gaze our gaze. It confronts us with our complicity with racism, by  making us identify with the perspective of the racist, inviting us to feel the revulsion of the xenophobe – and then pulling the carpet from under our feet.

It is this tension that produces what must be the most toe-curlingly awful moment in the film – the scene where Wikus and his men stumble across the breeding house where the alien grubs are feeding on the decomposing body of a cow, and proceed to torch the place.   The shack is in flames; from its interior a gruesome series of popping noises is  heard; Wikus  speaks delightedly to the camera, stammering in his excitement as he explains that that sound is the noise of the ‘little fellows’ exploding like popcorn.  On the one hand, we in the audience share his delighted revulsion in the cleansing of that awful, insectile, maggoty interior – and at the same time, we are disconcertingly aware that we are witnessing a scene of genocide.  The film will spare us nothing.

Rather more subtly – but perhaps more disturbingly  –  the same logic is at play in the film’s treatment of the reviled ‘Nigerians’, who are depicted in much the same fantastical ‘othering’ way as the aliens themselves.   Like the aliens, the ‘Nigerians’ are rendered as surrealistically horrendous; in fact part of their awfulness is that they live so close to the aliens, doing business with them, even (or so some of the whites in the film fantasize) having sex with them.  And no wonder. For in the racist world view, the most terrible thing about the relation with the Other is that the boundary might break down –  that ‘they’ might become like ‘us’, or we like ‘them’.

district-9-wikus-alienAnd that, of course, is Wikus’s fate.

It is here that the movie’s location in the genre of science fiction becomes so crucial. For the modern-day science fiction notion of the alien is arguably one of the ways in which the West can imagine and re-imagine its encounters with those it colonised and racialised.  Part of the fascination of the science- fictional notion of the alien is that it allows us to imagine an encounter with an ‘other’ that is both like and entirely unlike us – and who therefore brings the thrilling possibility that ‘they’ might do to ‘us’ what ‘we,’ the whites, the Northerners, have done to blacks, to Indians, to ‘natives’ on so many places of own world.  ‘Take us to your leader’ says the tall ambiguous figure…   And then? Do they come in peace? Are they wise? Do they bring technology or miraculous  medicine? Do they invite us to join an interstellar commonwealth of worlds?  Or do they eviscerate us, turn us into slaves, eat our children, take our land?

This is what makes Wikus’s journey so wrenching and profound.  The compelling and mysterious thing about the aliens in District 9 is the deep ambiguity that they represent.  Are they a culture of superbeings, more advanced than us? Their spaceship, looming hugely over Johannesburg, seems to suggest that.  Or are they cockroaches; depraved, subhuman, corrupt; so decayed that even with all their weaponry they are nothing but victims?    That question hangs over the whole movie  —  and nowhere more disquietingly than when Wikus realises that he is physically turning into an alien.  What does this transformation mean?  At one level, it is a fall into death, it is the body rotting: teeth falling out, nails dropping off, the white  skin flaking, sliming, growing black scales.    But it also brings with it a strange promise: the possibility of a different relationship with the aliens – and of course, the ability to manipulate all that awesome weaponry.

clawdistrict-9-01All this comes together in one of the most inspired moments of the whole film.  Wikus and the alien ‘Christopher Johnson’ are in the bowels of the MNU building.  They have secured the vial of fluid that they need to effect their escape plan.  They are in a firefight: the scene is indescribably chaotic, with junk and destroyed equipment scattered all around, gunshots,  bullets flying everywhere.  A moment ago, horrifyingly, they stumbled across the lab where the MNU has been torturing and conducting medical experiments uponthe aliens. Wikus protests his innocence – I did not know this was happening, he says – but his protests sound feeble and unconvincing even to us.  By now we are used to anthropomorphising ‘Christopher’, and we can see the horror and the pity – and the rage – that we imagine flowing through him as he looks at the ravaged body of his murdered kin. We can see that he would be entirely within his rights to smear Wikus then and there, and go his own way.  But he runs across the passage to join him, and together they crouch behind a bulkhead, the room filling with smoke and the thunder of gunshots, firing madly round corners, covering each other as they dash down the passage.  And suddenly we are watching … a buddy movie. I thought it was the most thrilling moment in the whole film- not because of the excitement of the action, but because the panache and the knowingness with which the movie draws upon – and re-invents – the genres within which it operates.  There are many movies in which the aliens are good guys – but never aliens that look like this.  Wikus has crossed over to the other side.  And so have we. For the rest of the film, we will look at the humans with fear and distrust, and when the mercenary Kobus Venter finally gets his gruesome come-uppance – he is torn apart alive, eviscerated and eaten by a group of aliens – the audience cheers.

So Wikus at last  becomes a man: by ceasing to be one.  In the final desparate battle of the film,  clad in a giant alien exoskeleton that disintegrates around him, he has has nothing left but his courage.  We don’t know whether he will ever find his way back to the human side of the fence again. The last scene shows him, completely transformed into an alien now, crouching among the rubble and debris of the ghetto, fashioning a flower out of scrap metal and tin cans.  It is a beautiful image – and ever so slightly cheesy. But that’s Wikus for you.  You can take the alien out of Benoni, but you can’t take Benoni out of the alien.  Strangely enough, we know that Wikus is now more at home on this blasted, fractured landscape than he has ever been in his life.

So, a strange and disturbing film; disorienting and discombobulating at more than one level.  It is thoroughly and utterly South African, but it inhabits its post-human cyborg sci-fi imaginary with knowing Northern familiarity.  It is clearly intended to comment and question on racism and xenophobia (it started life as a short movie questioning South African attitudes to, among others, those dreaded Nigerians) but it gets its effects through forcing you, the viewer, time and time again, to be the racist.   It is affectionately patriotic, but it frames its local and regional content by consistently ridiculing it.  It crackles with life and energy, but the landscape is the landscape of death: decayed, raddled, crumbing, strewn with garbage .  The moments of beauty in the film are the lingering shots of shantytown filth, settling gently in the breeze.  Above all, it is resolutely non-serious.  This is where the film stands head and shoulders above most other attempts to say something about our past.  At last we have a film that is not pompous,  does not moralise, does not offer lessons.  It does not attempt to be blameless.  Instead, it parades its own crudeness.  This is South Africa, it says.  A great place, as I said earlier this week, for trauma.  This is how awful we are. This is what we are like. Could you live here?

There’s one last inversion.  One of the most abiding images in the film is of the alien spaceship: huge, threatening, enigmatic, hanging over the Joburg skyline.  It is ominous, brooding (hanging there like the future, says one friend of mine;  like the mines under the surface of the city, says another).  And it looks so right that next time I am at OR Tambo international airport, I know that I will reflexively look up  to see if it is still there.   But the continual presence of the ship forces one more question.    Who is it who arrived, uninvited, in South Africa?  Who is it who came one day in a ship, and stayed, and did not leave?  In Johannesburg: who are the aliens?

district9poster

168 Comments leave one →
  1. Colleen H permalink
    September 4, 2009 8:26 am

    Wow, what a reivew, Andries. Brilliant. Thanks.

  2. September 4, 2009 9:45 am

    Fantastic and fantastically considered insight.

  3. September 4, 2009 9:57 am

    Awesome review, I agree. Perhaps a little too many spoilers to be a true pre-watching review… but then, this piece feels like it’s aimed at those who have seen it and plan to watch it again (myself included).

    All in all one of the best reviews I’ve read. Thank you!

  4. Thomas permalink
    September 4, 2009 10:01 am

    Fantastic piece – thanks Andries! This is an excellent entry into a new thought for the human condition – one encoded in a bio-cinematic politics of perception, perhaps? (Think: the documentary style and Wikus’s alien eye…) And yet why should the human be our limit here? Or rather, why should the local/universal tension here be cast so violently in the direction of “our particular past”? I like the vision of a looming future that hangs ominously over the ground of a crushing past/present. Or, all our terror (and potential) in the ever-present past-future (think Bergson), that is maybe human, probably cyborg, definitely post-global. So, whaddayathink? Whose dream is this anyway, in post-Apartheid, xeno-time?

  5. Nikki Benatar permalink
    September 4, 2009 10:17 am

    I think your analysis is razor-sharp, thoroughly considered and excellent. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

  6. September 4, 2009 10:21 am

    I tried to skip the spoilers, but (given that I’m incurably squeamish), it’s helpful to know when to shut my eyes when I go see this movie. I’m old enough to remember the witdoek/Dolf Odendaal days, so I found this review fascinating and intriguing, worth reading as a stand-alone piece of filmic writing.

  7. Patrick Kayton permalink
    September 4, 2009 10:28 am

    Excellent review, Andre. And will the rest of the world get it? I think so. Because the story is so tight it will bridge the gap of understanding that we assume is created by unfamiliar language and “South Africanness”.

  8. Minor Matters permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:20 am

    Brilliant. Thanks.

  9. Colleen H permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:22 am

    http://reviews.book.co.za/blog/2009/09/02/the-sunday-times-reviews-district-9-directed-by-neil-blomkamp/

    go over to book sa – some interesting response to your review, esp by Lauren Beukes.

  10. September 4, 2009 12:05 pm

    I do agree – great review – although I ‘m still not convinced by the treatment of the Nigerians. I think there was a great opportunity wasted there. Surely that Nigerian gang boss could have done something more intelligent than simply want to EAT Wikus?

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 4, 2009 2:30 pm

      Hi mash – yes. The treatment of the Nigerians, as everyone can see, is the edgiest thing in the movie. It comes very close to endorsing, rather than questioning, the racist portrayal. But in the end, on reflection, there is something rather admirable about them. Who would you rather be, MNU or Obasandjo. They seem to be at home in the ghetto, at home with the aliens. Maybe because they were the aliens before the aliens arrived.

  11. masterofarts permalink
    September 4, 2009 12:51 pm

    Hey, I just wanted to say this is a wonderful article- however, as a non-South African , albeit a New Zealander (and thus maybe more acutely aware of the post-colonial condition than, perhaps, others), I found that the allegory of apartheid functioned pretty clearly- perhaps even a tad heavy-handedly. Of course, as your review reminded me, there are many layers of meanings still unavailable to non-South African viewers. I did think that the narrative had to preform some strange contortions in order to set up the “prawn” as Other- jamming together Afrikaaner and African in an unlikely union. I expect you’ve seen this, but here’s one way it’s been reviewed in the UK:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/sep/03/district-9-review

    I was interested to note that this review focused far more on whether the film functioned as a plausible reflection of SA’s near future, given your current government, and while noting the apartheid element, kind of sidelined it. Given that a allegory of apartheid where the colonial enforcers were African would hardly fly, it’s tempting to read a certain residual imperialist defensiveness into it…it always interested me how colonial guilt never quite made it all the way back to England.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 4, 2009 2:38 pm

      Interesting points… I don’t think the union of Afrikaner and African is so far-fetched. In my experience of contemporary South Africa, it works very well, particularly if there is a colonial English white or two to band together against. If you can, check out Deon Meyer’s excellent South African crime novels, where many of his stories explore some of those resonances in detail.

  12. colleen crawford cousins permalink
    September 4, 2009 1:13 pm

    Deeply satisfying review – oh yes. Thanks Andries, especially for pointing out the “turn” in the movie, when we stop “doing” the racism and start cheering for Wikus and Christopher Johnson – the transformation scene, let’s call it. And for your last question: who came, uninvited, in a ship…?

    And I see in the M&G today that someone who lives in the dreadful hellhole of Chiawelo – where the movie was shot – says that “they’re coming back to make a sequel here”, hope not. Don’t paint A Starry Night again, Blomfeld.

  13. Clint Hendricks permalink
    September 4, 2009 4:33 pm

    Wow! great review for a great movie

  14. September 5, 2009 2:40 am

    Thank you for this. I have spent a couple of weeks trying to figure out what I could say about District 9. You’ve said it all brilliantly. I just keep telling people that it is so much more than a science fiction movie and that they should go see it.

  15. Rob Gaylard permalink
    September 6, 2009 3:57 pm

    Brilliant review. I fully agree with your point about the South-Africanness of the film, particularly for anyone who lived through the 70s and 80s in this country. Two minor (?) points: (1) The thing about Wikus is that he’s a nice guy (or thinks he is). He captures that attempt by many Afrikaners who were apartheid functionaries to present themselves as essentially well-meaning and well-intentioned. Remember a smiling Dr Verwoerd defining apartheid as essentially an exercise in ‘good-neighbourliness’? (2) I was very uncomfortable with the representation of ‘Nigerians’ in the film, and not surprised that offence is taken. Why oh why not give them a fictive or semi-fictive name? There were points where it was difficult to know whether stereotypes were being subverted or endorsed.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 6, 2009 6:03 pm

      Absolutely. I agree with both your points. Copley is very good at capturing that hammy good-neighbourliness. And, yes, the treatment of the ‘Nigerians’ is the most troubling and unresolved thing in the whole movie. Thinking about it all again, though, I must confess that there is a level at which I feel a sneaking admiration for the ‘Nigerians’ as they are represented. They are, after all, the only humans in the movie who have an ability to actually relate with / deal with the aliens. They are at home in District 9 in a way very similar to the aliens themselves, feel no horror for them, and don’t need to insulate themselves behind high walls. It would be interesting to draw a Greimasian square and plot out the ways in which whites, blacks, Nigerians and Aliens related to one another…

  16. Kevin permalink
    September 6, 2009 7:29 pm

    I held off reading your piece until I’d seen the movie and must say that you have captured much of what was going through my mind (and my viscera) during the movie. This was a movie I felt almost as much as saw – a sickening sense of deja view – not so much at the actions of the MNU – but the blind and incurious acceptance by the rest of society that this was the right thing to do.
    Excellent movie – excellent review. Thanks.

  17. September 6, 2009 8:39 pm

    one of the best reviews I’ve had the pleasure to read – thank you for this.

    re the Nigerians – I was continuously reminded of the work of Pieter Hugo – http://www.pieterhugo.com/.

    re alien weaponry – you got to love how well the guns worked once they got them going.. ;)

  18. September 7, 2009 1:58 pm

    Hi Andries, that was a tour de force. I was wondering however whether you put to little empasys on prsent day SA in your piece.

    Sean de Waal said in the M&G: “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.”

    I think that the absence of the state is a crucial break with a depiction limited to the apartheid past. The movie feels here and now.

    The echoes with recent xenophobic violence (or rather the not so recent but now reported) is loud and clear. The shifting of unwilling aliens to tented camps in the middle of nowhere is also very SA 2008.

    In 2006 the World values survey found that more than 20% of South Africans wanted all foreigners barred from entering the country on any grounds, compared with 13% holding this view in Britain, 11% in China, 4% in the US and 4% in Mozambique.

    At one stage in the frenetic fighting an Afrikaner corporate soldier shouts “one prawn, one bullet”. Wow. Indeed you are right, who are the aliens here?

    My – rather less eloquent – take on the movie before I saw it.

    http://mhambi.com/2009/08/district-9-and-the-politics-of-xenophobia-and-racism/

  19. September 7, 2009 2:41 pm

    Excellent!

    Don’t point your fokken tentacles at me!

  20. Charl permalink
    September 7, 2009 3:19 pm

    WOW!

    Andries!
    Buddy!
    Brudder!

    If I could put it into words, yours would be it! Brilliant!

    I remember… stoning police vans (only – our mothers travelled in buses), being beaten and thrown into jail for walking home from school – some other school’s kids violently disrupted classes and we had no choice but to leave, teargas; it’s all in District 9.

    Yet beyond that, the social message – in the film – seems to be/have been overlooked by those who watch(ed) it.

    Great Review and Comment!

    P.S.
    (This is true!!!)
    A young blonde lady who works at our local video store asked me if it (the alien landing) really happened (!!!!!???!!) because her buddies at college watched it and said it was a true story… I smiled and waved :~)

  21. John Comninos permalink
    September 7, 2009 6:37 pm

    Tour de Force has already been used for your review and analysis, I concur and want to let you know that rarely has a South African movie made me cry and rarer a review about a South African movie. To be honest the film and your writing made me proud. Thank you for reflecting some of the struggle and the joy, the agonizing beauty of living when and where we do. A piece of writing so brilliant that it has me in awe.

  22. Wilhelm permalink
    September 8, 2009 10:41 am

    Insightful review – the best on the kovie I have seen thusfar. Very reassuring that some people still know how to review.

  23. Colleen H permalink
    September 8, 2009 10:50 am

    Maggie Davey posted this review on Facebook today – another thought to throw into the mix.

    http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/53152,news,district-9-is-one-long-sales-pitch-for-south-africas-arms-industry-neill-blomkamp-military-weapons

  24. September 8, 2009 11:01 am

    Hi Andries

    I didn’t really want to see this movie until i read your review! Now i cannot wait.

    thanks!

  25. September 8, 2009 11:06 am

    I loved this part of your review: He is not just Afrikaans, he is a rockspider. He is a doos, a chop, a moegoe.

    And the fact that we come to like him in the end.

    I also think the great surprise of this flick [WARNING, SPOILER!!!] is that you come to support the aliens and Wikus, because the human motivations for weapons is appalling, and one is broadly supportive of a disgusting looking alien trying to protect its spawn [which is arguably the most human quality we see in District 9].

    Great review Andries, one of the best I’ve read. I wrote a premise for District 10, check it out here:

  26. September 8, 2009 11:07 am

    Sorry. here’s the link to the District 10 premise.

    http://www.nickvanderleek.com/2009/09/district-10.html

  27. September 8, 2009 11:47 am

    A spectacular review! Right on the mark; you have gotten to the heart of all the thorny discomfort about the Nigerians. Like, like, like.

  28. Ralph permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:51 am

    Brilliant review Andries for a brilliant film

    Felicity and I just watched it at a joburg drive in last night. It was really surreal. And been feeling quite alien to be back to Gauteng myself…

    Besides the clever subtexts and social comment it is so fun to watch , and towards the end I think so well made. The graphics, music, plot, script and direction. Wow – at last I feel proud of an SA film.

  29. September 8, 2009 1:26 pm

    Please put up a header before the start of your review saying ** SPOILER ALERT **

    I totally loved your review – but it has given away more than I wanted to know before watching.

    Thanks anyway!

  30. September 8, 2009 4:51 pm

    I’m an American and I don’t know how much I ‘got’ the South African-ness of District 9. It certainly felt like a complicated living, breathing city to me. But I can tell you this, that awful mix of violence, racism, and bureaucracy of the forced removal is a far more international experience than any of us would like it to be. It is the thin veneer of legality that governments use to allow themselves to conduct the most awful acts. In my country it is echoes of racism and Guantanamo Bay. It is the theater of security conducted in airports. And Wikus is every white guy who is not only one of the non-cool whites, but one of the uncoolest of the non-cool whites, who can’t figure out why his white male privilege doesn’t seem to quite work.

    Like you, I was both uncomfortable with and delighted by the way the film would make me racist (there’s an alien wearing a bra!) and then remind me how racist I was being. Even with Wikus I kept being appalled by his actions, and yet I so wanted him to not embarass himself, to succeed. Everytime he said ‘Prawn’ I winced, and yet, in my head, that’s what I call them, too.

    *Spoiler*

    However, the Nigerian sections made me uncomfortable. They felt racist, the Nigerians relegated to subhuman, cannibalistic animals. In the theater where I saw the movie, part of the audience cheered when Wikus killed them all, a moment of naked racism that the film seemed all to close to endorsing.

    Still, a brilliant film.

  31. The Wombat permalink
    September 8, 2009 5:00 pm

    G’day Andries,

    A marvelous review. Yes, as a non-South African I probably missed some of the subtly. As a big SF reader I was impressed with how good it was as an SF film, one of the best.

    I would like to add a little bit on racism, etc. Whiel this may well use the situation, past and present, in SA, I would like to suggest that it goes even deeper. However, I maintain this is just a symptom of what has ben with us forever. The 1st “other” may have been the Neanderthals vis-a-vis Homo Sapiens. It is not “current affairs” writ for the screen.

    I believe, this is what makes it such an excellent film. It delves into more than just the present.

    Similarly, TLOTR, by another South African, is NOT just World War 2 redone. It goes, in part, way further back.

    Cheers!

    The Wombat

  32. Paul Cilliers permalink
    September 8, 2009 6:11 pm

    I also feel that this is one of the most important and best films I have seen. It has been haunting me for days. Reviews like this help to open up the difficult discussions we have to face in SA. Thanks.

  33. andries du toit permalink*
    September 8, 2009 6:39 pm

    Thanks Pierre and Wessel for reminding us that such removals are still ongoing

  34. September 8, 2009 7:14 pm

    On the matter of the Nigerians, and awful number of the responses that I’ve noticed (here, on farcebook, elsewhere on the net…) express concern at the reinforcement of racial stereotypes – and yet, I become increasingly convinced that the effect of Blomkamp’s depiction is (meant to be…) just the opposite; that the racial worries come out of misinformation or the inability to apprehend the workings of caricature. I’m wondering whether you – or anybody else – has anything to say on this matter?

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 8, 2009 7:36 pm

      Belle, I kind of agree with you. On the one hand, the movie completely replicates all the stereotypes of Nigerians as they are perceived in South Africa. On the other hand, it is useful to remember that the movie had its origins in that anti-xenophobic short. So yes, I do tend to believe that it is caricature. But the movie does not ironize or complicate the stereotype – or at least, not much. It could be that this is where the film ‘slips’ in its skilful playing.

      At the same time, I think the Nigerians are absolutely essential to the internal ‘economy’ of the movie. They represent one of a range of possible responses to the Aliens. In a way, the Nigerians represent a human response very different from that of either the normal South African public’s (squeamishness) or the MNU (exploitation). They WANT to become the Alien; remember that Obesandjo admires Wikus. There is, as I have said somewhere earier in this thread, something admirable about the Nigerians.

      And yet, and yet. When I watched it a second time, I still found the rendition of the Nigerians troubling. The African stereotypes are very charged. Yes, it is a caricature of how present day white South Africans (and therefore also Wikus) sees the Nigerians. It is completely exaggerated (the one guy has a python around his neck, FFS). At the same time, the movie does not give you any image or narrative possibility that challenges the racist stereotype of the Nigerians. So at this point it is hard for me to avoid the conclusion that it is a flaw in the movie. At the same time, it is an interesting flaw – not a flaw that ‘exposes’ some kind of ‘inherent racism’ in the movie, but rather an indication of how tricky it is to handle this material.

      In this sense, District 9 is very like, for example, Bamboozled or The Believer – two other movies that also deal with this kind of critique of racism through inversion.

      I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

  35. Marius permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:11 pm

    Re, Nigerians: Do we have proof the Nigerians were in fact really Nigerians? I think the caricature lies in them actually being from different parts of Africa, and only people who speak all those languages would be in on the joke. Wish I had confirmation, but I’ve heard elsewhere some words were Swahili, and a friends swears he heard a few clicks from the “Nigerians”. Interesting recursive effect on the rascism debate. Thos who point out the depiction of the Nigerians are rascist might be rascist in assuming they’re Nigerians just because the whites in the movie say so.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 10:20 pm

      Wow. Spot on. Sir, you hit the mark. That is definitely one of the things going on in the film.

  36. Marius permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:15 pm

    It would be hilarious if my previous comment (which I don’t know where it went) got spamtrapped because I used the word “Nigerian” too much.

  37. Marius permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:48 pm

    (OT @ The Wombat) I’m kinda embarrassed when people try to claim Tolkien for SA. He was two when he left. It reminds me of China trying to claim Arunachal Pradesh. Agreed, though. I never even saw the WW2 thing till someone pointed it out, who turns out never to have read the book.

    Re: District 9
    I just had an American saying she understands D9 says something about Apartheid, but she could figure out WHAT it was saying, and it just kinda struck me that, why does it need to say something “about” it, why can’t it just show it. Period. Er. Full stop.

    • The Wombat permalink
      September 9, 2009 12:05 am

      @Marius, Well, I was being just a little bit facetious. I’ve been a fan of TLOTR for about 45 years. Actually, he may have been 3, but who is counting and I’m sure neither he nor his family thought of themselves, it was back in the 1890’s, as South African.

      Tolkien was highly effected by WW1. However, he was a student of English myth and IMHO that plays a more important role than either of the two WWs.

      You are correct. It is a perfectly good example of Apartheid. A syllabus for outsiders, such as I. However, as I noted, the treatment of “The Other” goes way beyond present time & borders. Maybe it say, we haven’t changed very much over the millennia. Sad.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 10:18 pm

      I think it does something more than just ‘show it’. I think it highlights the dehumanizing way in which racist discourse works by showing us – in those prawns – exactly what it is racist discourse reduces ‘people’ (people?) to.

  38. Marius permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:50 pm

    Andries, can you please recover my previous post from you spam can? I think I discovered an ironical twist.

  39. September 9, 2009 1:59 am

    Thanks for your response to my question! I’m afraid my thoughts are not many at this stage: largely out of ignorance – I’m not a film scholar and I don’t know either “Bamboozled” or “The Believer”. What you say about the representation of the Nigerians not being an instance of “inherent racism” rings very true, though, and I think it might do to flesh out what is going on between film-maker and viewers in a case like this. One gets hairy looks in literature for talking about “intentions,” but I think it might be a good idea to bring intentions back. If we’re not saying Blomkamp, or the film, is racist, then what is the problem? (I’m not suggesting that there isn’t one, but rather that our understanding of the film – or whatever – might be enriched by figuring out what it is.) Problematic or no, I think the portrayal of the Nigerians as almost cannibalistic, lusty, hot was kind of necessary to the coherence of the film. And yes, they are immanently admirable: only they dare to touch, trade with, have sex with, consume the prawns…

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 7:31 am

      “Cannibalistic, lusty, hot” Oooh!

      I think you are really on to something. Firstly, as Marius points out, the Nigerians may not be Nigerians. Some of them speak Swahili, and they have a distinctly Central-African / Southern African sangoma. How stupid of me not to see this (though I did have an inkling, which is why I put the word in quotes). In South Africa (and, I bet, in the UK too) ‘Nigerian’ is an appelation for any African who is being constructed as a criminal and a predator. In other words, any African who is an ‘uppity nigra’, who does not have the decency to keel over and say ‘massa,’ and (this is the key issue) who commits the crime of not needing white people who can either oppress or save him or her.

      I think you are correct about their necessity to the film. I tried to do that Greimasian semiotic square but 7%$£ WordPress somehow won’t let me upload graphics into comments.

      • September 9, 2009 7:40 pm

        More on Nigerians not being Nigerian: one of the first things I noticed at the point where they start to play a significant role in the film (apologies for vagueness: I need to watch it again!) was that at least one of them appeared to be talking Zulu. At the time I supposed that he/they was/were some sort of Sefrican middleman between Nigerians and those they interact with (which no doubt brings up interesting questions of its own), but on reflection, the “Nigerians” also bring up other stereotypes: most strikiingly, voodoo…

        As for cannibalistic, lusty, hot: yes – the “Nigerians” are very sexy. Sexy-squalid fearsome brave…

  40. Ystervark permalink
    September 9, 2009 9:23 am

    Wow. You put into such succinct phrases everything that I felt and experienced during the movie. Fabulous penmanship! Great review!

  41. September 9, 2009 10:50 am

    “Yes, it is a caricature of how present day white South Africans (and therefore also Wikus) sees the Nigerians.”

    Ag nee man Andries.

    Now you expose your ignorance and reinforces my doubts of your otherwise excellent review. It seems that a few white struggle veterans on here are willfully only seeing the romantic glory days on the anti-apartheid struggle and have no idea of whats happening in today’s townships. Have a look at these pics…

    Edenpark 3

    It is no coincidence that Congolese live in the City bowl in Cape Town and Nigerians in Hillbrow. They just are not safe in Alex and Khayelitsha.

    Studies have shown that Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans themselves, see white South Africans as much more positive towards them than black SA.

    In a recent Channel 4 documentary they visit Lindelela and interview those that are about to be deported. “Blacks are worse than the Boers”! the resounding response. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlrTtc50PR0&feature=related

    It’s all relative of course as white SA’s opinions are hardly smelling of roses. But still. There is a significant difference.

    The fact that the local and international press don’t cover what’s happening to black migrants to SA does not make it less horrible.

    http://www.thetimes.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=934888

    I would like to think that this movie can be interpreted much wider. The fact that its not the government but a private company doing the removals is telling. The aliens are not removed just outside the city so their lbour can be extracted, they are taken 200km away – just like our current black refugees. This may be a bit literal, but it would seem that Wikus’s Joburg does not have any apartheid or obvious animosity between black and white Saffas.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 11:37 am

      Wessel, in my experience, here in Cape Town at least, white people are at least as nasty as black South Africans towards immigrants from other South African countries.

      • September 9, 2009 11:54 am

        Perhaps, but this report “Nobody hates foreigners like we do” reckons otherwise:

        http://www.thetimes.co.za/PrintEdition/News/Article.aspx?id=772536

        “The 2006 World Values Survey — also not yet published — showed that 21.3% of black South Africans did not want an immigrant living next door , compared with roughly 1% of whites, coloureds and Indians.

        Black South Africans were significantly more suspicious of black African migrants than immigrants from Europe or North America.”

        But the report goes on to say that all groups in SA show very high levels of xenophobia.

        My point being is that District 9 speaks very much to a current as well as a historical SA.

        • andries du toit permalink*
          September 9, 2009 6:20 pm

          I wonder why you are so very intent on letting white South Africans off the hook here. True – neither in the movie, nor in reality, do white South Africans take up arms / toyi-toyi against the aliens. But that’s because we don’t need to. We’re safe in our policed, burglar alarmed suburbs

          • September 9, 2009 6:50 pm

            Andries, good point.

            With that I would agree completely, the aliens don’t compete with whities for jobs, houses Etc.

            And doesn’t the same analogy hold for old apartheid SA? Afrikaners are more racist, boorish because they were more likely to feel threatened: working class, less educated, be the ‘interface’ with black SA – in the police, the railways, the hospitals and not have a European passport – than the Houghton living English speaking white middle-classes?

            I would think its not be a question of being intent on letting people off the hook – it should be a question of analyzing the situation correctly in accordance with actual experience, no? Or does it not matter who kills refugees inside South Africa unless the killers are white?

            It is a given that white SA and in particular Afrikaners are responsible for the reprehensible system called apartheid. And I think the hegemony of white culpability is complete. But that hegemony is also dangerous for the future of SA as it helps obscure the present.

            Ironically, the denial of black agency is one of this ideologies offspring.

            I have been following and reporting on the murders of Somalis on my blog since 2005. Long before the press thought it news worthy. They still don’t really. Do you know – for example – that in Fish Hoek on October 2006 40 were killed? I spent some time in Yeoville recently where at a braai many South Africans there told me how they were going to kill all the immigrants. I think we have a real problem.

            I also thought the movie had definite touches of the past and the present. I think in the context of our recent history it would be a huge mistake not to read it that way as well.

          • September 9, 2009 6:54 pm

            And perhaps also if I were to analyze myself I too “have become the alien”. No longer the confident arrogant Afrikaner, now I feel like those Mozambicans. An interloper.

            • andries du toit permalink*
              September 9, 2009 7:37 pm

              Aah nou praat jy.

  42. September 9, 2009 1:11 pm

    Enjoyed your review, Andries — thanks.

    The inclusion of the “Nigerians” in the script was a brilliant move and made an extremely important point: In the race between greed and discrimination, greed wins by a Semenya and a half. The “Nigerians” are equal opportunity exploiters, acting as nieu-colonialists themselves, despite their own battle against discrimination and exploitation (not just historically by Europeans, but also by black South Africans).

    The “muti” theme was also an important inclusion in the film, and probably would not have survived the cutting floor without the “protection” of Peter Jackson. How ironic that Wikus accidentally achieves the Nigerian goal of (part) becoming an alien (through alien bio-technology, no less) and immediately rebels against it, whilst the Nigerians would love nothing more but can’t work out how to do so!

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 8:39 pm

      Ummm… what’s Caster got to do with it?

      • September 10, 2009 8:36 am

        I guess humour’s not really your genre… ;-)

        • andries du toit permalink*
          September 10, 2009 8:53 am

          Oh, was it a joke? Perhaps I am just slow. What’s the connection? Please explain.

  43. Pam permalink
    September 9, 2009 1:29 pm

    Has anybody else been haunted by Wikus’s sidekick Fundiswa? That little clip of him at the end of the movie, speaking from prison, suggested a personal journey at least as perilous and fascinating as the one made by Wikus. Even more, it suggested that Fundiswa could turn out to be the kind of hero poor old Wikus never was. If they make a sequel, I hope it’s about him.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 7:41 pm

      A very good point, Pam. I recall hearing somewhere that much of this actor’s part was cut, and that he originally had a bigger role in the movie.

      Like Colleen, I hope that they don’t make a sequel. I think it is perfect as it is. I hope Blomkamp’s next movie is, what, I don’t know. A crime thriller set in Muizenberg. A steampunk movie set in the Johannesburg mines in 1890s, about a cyborg underground black resistance to Barney Barnato. A Benoni rock musical starring Vernon Koekemoer. Anything but a sequel.

  44. Peter van Heusden permalink
    September 9, 2009 10:08 pm

    Truly a lyrical review Andries. One thing, however, my bra DS pointed out to me is how the Black people in District 9 are domesticated. These are, after all, the Black functionaries of a racist system, the kitskonstables etc. The “good Black” becomes the underling, as opposed to the “prawn”. Following on from this, I couldn’t shake how, yet again, we have a story of Apartheid where the white is redeemed. As you point out, the audience cheers as Kobus Venter is dismembered… yet in reality, the real-life Kobus Venters left the army (or the police) and now occupy key positions in the private security industry that stands between the suburb (and gated village) and the 21st century South African “other”. The audience identify with Wikus – that “race traitor” – and through his “treason” the identification with the racist is dulled, diverted somehow. It all ends “happily”… and paradoxically the damned chop is vindicated, his ridiculous self-importance turns into a real importance by the end of the movie.

    As I opined to friends after seeing the movie, this is sci-fi ala Koos Kombuis – with its cutting take on Apartheid, Afrikaners, whiteness because it stands exactly within that complex, at some slight remove, a Voelvry take on the Broederbond – yet it is ultimately stuck as a white guy’s movie about Apartheid.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 10:15 pm

      Perceptive and accurate points. But why ‘stuck’? Are you assuming there is a perspective that is ‘unstuck’, transcendent, universal? Why yes, it is a perspective from a very specific place. As I said in my review, it is absolutely and incontrovertibly a white voice speaking here. As such it speaks to and from a very specific experience. That, indeed, is its value.

      • September 12, 2009 7:13 pm

        *shrug* I guess I’m just a bit jaded by white voices… and especially the little twist of redemption. A World Apart, Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season, we’re constantly hearing the story of the lone (or almost lone) white hero, the good white, a redemptive figure… for me its “stuck” because it a neat little twist in the tale, a comfortable conclusion, a line of flight foreclosed.

        • andries du toit permalink*
          September 12, 2009 9:23 pm

          Redemption? Really? I’m not so sure. There’s no reconciliation, no redemption in this movie, no burden of history removed. ‘CJ’ is off in his mothership, and we don’t know what he will bring back when he return, a ‘fix’ for Wikus or vengeance. Wikus’s story is very different from those narcissistic voices. yes, he has chosen not to be a Kobus Venter. But neither is he an Alan Paton, or an Andre Brink. Puhleaze! The interesting thing about the film is that the torch of agency has passed from his hands. He is in the margins. CJ is the actor, to what outcome we don’t know.

          Perhaps your problem is with there being a white voice at all?

  45. Johann Potgieter permalink
    September 10, 2009 8:38 pm

    Andries, this brilliant review is the sort of writing and thinking that just doesn’t happen with SA cinema, and that’s half the problem with what gets made, and how it’s seen. Even the most prolific of local “film academics” writing about SA cinema have little more than the critical ability of fans. I am as stunned by the level of the engagement WITH your review.

  46. vashthi nepaul permalink
    September 10, 2009 10:54 pm

    Hi Andries,

    This is the review I’ve been looking for! I just want to say thank you and well done. The US sneak peek and post opening reviews of this film are woefully inadequate re getting to grips with just why this film is so powerful within the South African context. I’m a new SciFi buff but have had an interest (and an SA degree) in History and Politic Science for a while now and it’s a relief to finally see some analysis that deals with specific elements so well.

    My stomach turned when Wikus told the alien he was identified by the organisational machinery as Christopher Johnson. I’m non white and still have relatives with ‘English calling names’ that cut into their identities and self-worth but allowed them some shallow acceptance in white run working environments.

    I find it very interesting that the aliens in District 9 are not ever identified by their own names and never even profess to having a name. In SciFi terms it’s a nod to their insectoid origins and hive society as described in interviews by Blomkamp. However, the film’s exploration of ‘othering’ also makes it a commentary on how they do not control or define their own identity in a society where they are unrecognised as citizens. It’s a chilling look at how apartheid or any kind of pervasive decrimination can undermine a person’s view of themselves and their own worth.

    There is a kind of willing submission portrayed here we see every day in inter-racial relations in SA – as well as in the world over with regard to gender.

    In conclusion, thanks again for a cracking and insightful read. Analysis aside, you also highlighted the fact that this film is great entertainment too.

    Kind regards,
    Vashthi

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 11, 2009 7:03 am

      Hi Vashti,

      Thanks for your appreciative comments. Yes you are right. The whole ‘Christopher Johnson’ thing is both funny and chilling. What is particularly bizarre is that ‘Christopher’ responds to being so called.

      Your points speak to an important dimension in the film, one that I have not touched on, and that is the curious passivity of the aliens. In much of the discussion of the film on the Internets this is usually framed as a ‘hole in the plot': how come the aliens do not just take their guns and shoot their way out? If they have all that weaponry (and if, incidentally, they are so much physically stronger than humans) why do they let themselves be oppressed?

      To which the answer is, as my friend Colleen points out, ain’t that always the way? Why did tens of millions of Black South Africans allow themselves to be oppressed for decades by a small number of, um, Wikuses? It wasn’t just the guns. How come Jewish people ‘submitted’ to the ghettos and concentration camps? Challenging an oppressive system takes organisation, takes a counterhegemonic project, isn’t just a matter of technology. People make their small compromises, try to survive – etc etc – as a historian you know the subtleties. I think one of the subtler points of the film is that it does not feel it really needs to explain this issue at length. We know that the aliens are in crisis. What that crisis is we never know, beyond some very obviously fantastical guesses by an entomologist (an entomologist!) in one of the talking heads shots. It might be that they have, or don’t have names. It might be that they even use them. We don’t know.

      peace
      Andries

  47. Gideon Fourie permalink
    September 11, 2009 9:40 am

    Super review!

  48. September 11, 2009 11:16 am

    I have been dumbly struggling to express what I felt after watching D9 as a South African in a Canadian theatre. Couldn’t bring words to the heavy emotions plus frustration knowing that most of the audience didn’t get the nuances. No need to anymore. What a BRILLIANT review. I am so passing it on to my world.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 11, 2009 1:47 pm

      As we say in the old country: dzy wiet dan. Glad you enjoyed the review. The desire to write it came from the sense that there is so much going on that would pass you by if you did not share a very specific experience. Thank you so much for your kind words.

  49. September 12, 2009 12:05 pm

    I concur with all the other comments. What a brilliant and poignant review. Thank you so much, this will be retweeted until the end of time :-)

  50. Jonathan permalink
    September 12, 2009 6:37 pm

    Andries. Nice review and interesting discussion. What struck me was not the way in which the ‘Nigerians’ interact with the aliens, admirable or not, but that the film is really about two species of alien. The Nigerians are not humans, they are aliens too. One representation is subversive of racist discourse, xenophobic branding and sci-fi conventions about ‘aliens’ (as you point out), the other (the Nigerians) is the complete embodiment of all those conventions and stereotypes. Risky (Bhorat and Bruno-like) but effective, just.

    On the MNU, I thought at first this was simply a way of avoiding the risk of “offending”government but on reflection seems to me to be more a commentary on privatization, the weapons industry, genetic engineering etc.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 13, 2009 8:25 am

      I think you are absolutely correct – in fact I came to similar conclusions in my follow up post. Your parallel with Borat is very useful; I had not thought of that. But you are right The movie is using the racial stereotypes in a very similar way, ‘winking’ at the audience over the heads of those who don’t get it. A risky game.

      Avoiding the risk of offending government? Somehow I don’t think Blomkamp is worried about that.

  51. regenklang permalink
    September 13, 2009 6:03 am

    Just wanted to say that I thought this was consummate and lyrical review work, and that you should be well chuffed for having carried it off with such attention to detail and dedication. I also appreciated the way you looked at the racial issues in a way that was subtle and thoughtful, covering the whole spectrum whilst acknowledging the “white man reviews white film about racism” angle, and without giving the impression you were imposing on anyone else’s possible interpretations.

    Second time I’ve arrived “randomly” at this blog, second time I’ve left delighted.

    A hit sir, a very palpable hit.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 13, 2009 8:28 am

      As we say in the southern suburbs, namaste *bows*.

      When I write about a book or movie, I always think of Tony Morrison’s remark her essay Playing in the Dark: ‘These remarks issue from delight, not disappointment”. It is the only really valid way in which to take issue with a text.

      So I am glad I could share some of the delight.

      • Ali van Wyk permalink
        October 4, 2009 12:08 am

        Yes. This is something that is an issue to me. Reviewers who have no business reviewing a genre or artist that they despise. It is not usefull.

  52. kgwanyape permalink
    September 13, 2009 11:30 am

    Kudos Andries. A review, as reviews should be written.

    I have held off on seeing District 9. Too much hype. And I’ve never been big on Sci-Fi movies.

    But there was something about this movie that I wanted to see for myself.

    It wasn’t the premise, which the movie’s title seemingly alluded to.

    It wasn’t the tone and tenor of the response to its initial release in the US.

    I simply had this inkling that South Africans had come together, with some highly regarded film-makers … and explored an interesting story, with an interesting angle … and I wanted to see for myself whether they cut it.

    And cut it they did!

    So whilst my daughter and friends sat through the quite adult story underpinning Pixar’s latest animated gem ‘Up” … last night I sat through District 9.

    With few expectations.

    At risk of boring readers who have seen the movie and read your review, I was quite taken by the whole thing. I loved the cinematic style of the movie, the wry humour, the sobering underpinnings of its story, and the deft hand of the director and producer in keeping an astute balance between the fantasy of it all, and the harsh reality of the human condition.

    District 9 kept me riveted from start to finish … and the understated acting of the locals I found fresh and exhilarating.

    I left it feeling I’d been entertained, and in some strange way educated too. Was it all really THAT obvious! How dof is mankind?

    I think that this is a movie that will grow on me. Become epic in its own way.

    Because your review has opened my eyes to nuances in the film, that I observed, but didn’t see. Heard, but didn’t listen to.

  53. chriswildman permalink
    September 14, 2009 3:38 pm

    At last – an in depth review from a South African. Shot!

  54. September 18, 2009 4:25 pm

    Andries, I am the father of Wikus van der Merwe and I am going to moer you for the horrible things you are saying about my boy….he was just doing his job and is really a good man….you did not see this in your review but the prawns did and that’s why Christopher promised to come back and help him….you are really a poes.

    Hello Andries jokes aside Sharlto Copley is my son and your review of District 9 is a little ” masterpiece” Besides your brilliant use of the English language your insightful “big picture” perspective captured the essence of the subtle bridge the film makes between fiction and reality past, present and future. Your review like the film is deserving of an oscar. I will make sure that both Sharlto and Neil see your review because I have little doubt that it impress them as much as it did me and the many others who have posted comments here. I live in Pringle Bay and would like to speak to sometime Yours authentically Dr Bruce Copley

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 11:51 pm

      Thank you Bruce. That would be such an honour. Just let them know: I promise. I won’t point my tentacles at them.

    • September 21, 2009 12:16 pm

      Dear Bruce my Bra,

      It took a movie of the caliber Disrict 9, to make you say that “p” word in public. Although it shocked me into another blood type, I have to congratulate you in breaking the molds (wht’s new!). First of all congratulations with your laaitie’s achievement. When you told me about the movie to be last year, I did take notice, but who could have expected it to turn out that colossal!? When Sharlto bought the troop carrier (Ratel???) for him and his tjommies to go out and jol, I just knew here was no ordinary kid. I wanted to buy it form him to use it for advertising with my clients, but they were simply to alienated from extraordinary concepts making it to stay a dream. Is “alienate” appropriate in this context?? Thanks also for sending me the link to Andries the P’s review. This certainly is a piece of work! Well done Andries, look at all the responses! As you said Bruce, it use to be “That’s my dad!” now it’s “That’s my boy!” or in envy “That’s my friend’s boy!”. Ask Sharlto on my behalf, how the Copley AAHA feeling was?

  55. September 18, 2009 4:30 pm

    Is aliens a reality???
    Do they really come to earth???
    Area 51 in U.S. is having the evidence of alien space craft crashed there.U.S. government is holding the evidence of aliens arrival.Area 51 is a restricted area.
    To know more http://www.code000.co.cc

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 11:52 pm

      I understand they are all being moved to Area 52.

  56. September 18, 2009 8:36 pm

    This is a really thought provoking review and I have posted a link to it on my blog, D9 Dossier where I collect such things about the film. :-)

    d9dossier.wordpress.com

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 19, 2009 11:55 pm

      Thank you. What an awesome site! I’m stunned! You’re really showing how resonant the movie is as ‘a story of now’. Thank you!

  57. September 18, 2009 11:39 pm

    Hey, I’ve also got 2 cents:

    1) Riaad Moosa reckons its just a matter of time before we get the musical District 9 directed by David Kramer.

    2) I did wonder why the ‘Nigerians’ spoke Zulu, and seemed so stereotyped – your brilliant review and discussion have enlightened me. Thanks. Its a standard SA problem. Caricature only really works as social commentary if people get the point (the Bamboozled thing, kinda). Thats why so much current caricature just comes out as another coloured, Indian, Zulu stereotype. It really hurts when you create powerful socially savvy commentary, and the racist dude misinterprets it at face value (I’m a professional comedian, so I really feel the pain in this). I by chance chatted to the head of the Wits anthropology department today about the Nigerian D9 thing. We didn’t get it. I wonder if your average punter gets it?

    3) Is the film about the past or the present? Thats the standard critique of the Comaroff’s work on Setswana history – even though its about the past, its written in the present. Perhaps D9 says more about our current understanding of current ‘otherness’, than about how otherness was then. In SA comedy there is a worrying move to accepting basic stereotypes of anyone who isn’t like you (‘coloured’ people have no front teeth, white people can’t dance, yadda yadda). Audiences love it. For me the movie was as much about that as about the past. I guess its about what ears you listen with.

    Really kiff discussion. Thanks.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 12:07 am

      I think it is about the present, which in many ways is not so different from the past. Remember what Kim Stanley Robinson says: Science fiction is news about today. I think one of the central agendas of the film is to stir things up, to make us aware of how we relate to ‘others’. Like Bamboozled, the film is a rebus, a rorshach blot, an irritant.

      Why David Kramer? Because he’s already made an album called Delicious Monster?

      • September 21, 2009 9:45 pm

        You obviously missed Kramer’s other musical, District 6.

        I see the Nigerian government has asked the film to stop being played. I was at dinner on saturday night with David Kau (hands down SA’s most successful black comedian). I was trying to explain the Nigerian argument explored in the above texts. It felt like I was trying explain why white people look racist but aren’t. Its hard to explain why a guy who emigrated to Canada with the name Blomkamp made the Nigerian dudes eat aliens and spoke bad mix of SA languages… deep satire or not.

        I think if I was Nigerian I would find the whole situation violently less satirical.

        • andries du toit permalink*
          September 22, 2009 5:06 pm

          Well I would agree these representations are seriously problematic. They are also complex.

          Most of all, I want to resist the kind of discourse that neatly divides texts into ‘racist’ and ‘not racist’ and puts the former beyond the pale. I would like to live in a society that acknowledges racial antagonism everywhere, and where we value a text because of the complexity of its engagement with these loaded and difficult topics. I much prefer D9, and Borat, and Spike Lee, and that Black Consciousness Man skit they have over in the UK than carefully inoffensive texts that take fewer risks to make you think.

  58. Michaelh permalink
    September 19, 2009 6:26 pm

    Is ja!

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 12:09 am

      dzy wiet dan.

  59. Casper permalink
    September 20, 2009 9:21 pm

    The movie grabbed me after 12 seconds and I am still in it although I watched it 3 weeks ago. Neil stated in an interview that their was no script for the “searching of the prawn houses”. Wikus had to go in and say what he thought a policeman would have said. One cannot script that. Therefore the movie never felt like a specific script, it felt like reality TV in its purist form. That is why I feel I am still watching the movie everyday. Let me go!!!

    Very few people (apart from the crew) were aware of the making of the movie in SA, hardly anyone until it surfaced on the screens. In the same way very few people were aware of the xenophobia (apart from the target group)until it surfaced.

    I hope in this case Neil will surface with something else soon. Anything

    Andries jy is in klas van jou eie!

  60. Tossie van Tonder permalink
    September 21, 2009 6:09 pm

    Ja Nouja. I was in a backpacker in Brisbane sharing the room with three other males (even the bathrooms are multisexed) when the New Zealander told me that he has just seen the most extraordinary SA film. This is how I got to know about it. Have to be packed and squashed in to the degree that I cannot even find my own packback to find the most revelatory imagery of the old country…as an Apartheid child. Ja, ek weet van alles…en nogwat. The review pleases me up to a point but it is not liberatory enough in terms of the work that the director had done to bring redemption on all levels. Andries praat nog te veel soos ‘n vry kommunis, as jy my vra. What was heartening about Wikus, who could have been my brother, is that he was not only a tool of the repressive system, but thanks to Blomkamp, he was clearly and virtually innocently portrayed as a child of Apartheid who, so embroiled in the politics of the time that he could not take a stance outside of it, at his own will and conscience, (except if he was English and had uncles at Oxford on the other side of the black telephone line) because no matter how hard you bent your brain you were INIT.
    Wikus was beautifully acted by a man who could tell us what had been the inner innocence (Ja fokken onskuld, hoor vir my. If you were There, of Hier dan, you would have listened to every decibel of that f word, a tapestry of human complexity, white, endangered, empowered, dis/continuous, surviving, fokken frekking!) of a man who had ordinary desires for a relationship with a blonde and perhaps a family. But at root he was already trapped by sy skoonpa! Glo vir my dis waar. If you got into a relationship with a person who was part of the system (who was not?) you married into the blood of dispair, thinking thatyou are winning all the way, which was rendered in an ultrarealistic way by the outcome of the movie. My strong heart went out when I saw how this man who had good values at the root, but could not help himself getting rotten from the top down by buying in, being bribed into the task of “elimination” (hey kyk na daai woord, ne?) without having much of a muscle to resist.
    This is where you stop reading if you have not yet paid your dues and put your bum on that seat.
    Why the review does not mention the next generation of alien slaan my dronk. Dis hoekom ek dink jy het ‘n klap van die kommuniste weg. A child is born, liewe magtag! There is a part beyond our past-current predicament, vorentoe, broer! This child, if I can remember, (because I was blerrie tired gebackpack by that time), has brilliance that furthers the story. It (probably intersexed) pushes a button, no, grabs into virtual signs, to bloody launch a space ship out of the township, to its mothership! Did you walk out when it got too violent? It was the most wonderful redemptive piece of footage. Even though the ouks with their kaspers en wat nog ookal, shot a wing off, it still connected, if I remeber, with its mothership. Julle moet mooi kyk wat daar aangaan, mense. Hier het ons te make met ‘n futuristiese moment. If we kan allow ourselves, to transform, soos my broer Wikus dit gedoen het, teen sy eie beterwete en wil in, (tot op ‘n punt, waar hy “oorgee”) we will not only become and fully become I dare say, the alien but we will give space for a new blueprint to operate with unification, uniting with where we all hold our greatest fantasies (and perversions), in outer space! But the child takes us there, in this movie. Hahha, let me stretch the point. Back on the ranch where Wikus wanted to have the ordinary things of life, which is to procreate amongst other things, the archetypal impulse to renew ourselves, en so aan en so voort….het in die fliek gebeur maar met ‘n intelligensie wat ver bo die hele donnerse fliek uitgerys het, met ‘n gedruis as ek dit kan reg onthou.
    OK then you must remember, and this is why Afrikaners are so gesteld op detail, the main alien (CJ) promises Wikus that he will be saved but only in 3 years’ time. Sounds familiar. What a piece of cake. It marks 2012 precisely. Make of it what you want.
    In Sydney I was looking at what was on the movie circuit and so wragtagwaar, there, still to come to your screens! was one of these 2 meter high standing boards preparing us for the most apocalyptic film ever :2012. I was never so fully in the swing of things there on foreign ground.
    So, ou maat, thanks for all those wonderful layouts, and discourses and excuses before you spoke them, but roots are roots, and when they rise they are no longer roots.
    Just some detail: I picked up 3 spelling mistakes, but then I do that in the postoffice and the banks all the time.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 21, 2009 7:48 pm

      Jislaaik. Thanks!

      I will have to think about what you say. I was never sure what to make of the alien sprog.

      And, yes. Wikus is a hero, in all the ways and for all the reasons that you mention. You are right about the relationship between him and his father in law. In the a way, the movie charts a moment in the Afrikaner story, when we had to ask, will we be instruments of the old men who sent us all to war, or will we choose the possibility of another way of being?

      The film leaves a lot of things open, though. Will CJ come back, and will he take revenge? If Wikus becomes ‘cured’ of his alien-ness, will he go back to the safety of the suburbs? Is ‘redemption’ ever the end of the story? I don’t know.

  61. September 21, 2009 9:48 pm

    Ha, ha, just googled it – maybe I just missed ‘Delicious Monster’.

  62. colleen crawford cousins permalink
    September 21, 2009 11:15 pm

    I think I’m going with Tossie here on the imaginary of the child…hmm. I like it. A new blueprint…in outer space! (And yes – the CJ three year story is the kinda line poor Wikus would fall for. Wagmaar).

  63. Colleen Higgs permalink
    September 22, 2009 4:17 pm

    http://wikus.co.za/

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 22, 2009 5:00 pm

      Yes, interesting. It seems to be an attempt to do a Vernon Koekemoer on Wikus. Most of it is rather lame, actually. But it does highlight how Wikus is iconic of a certain kind of white Afrikaans male stereotype.

  64. Jawdett permalink
    September 22, 2009 4:53 pm

    Thank you Professor Andries Du toit for this insightful review without which I would have still held District 9 as one more pseudo-Hollywoodian garbage. After what you wrote, I had to see the movie. This review should definitely be published in an academic review like the Cahiers du Cinema. And, although I may have different opinions on one or two points, I will definitely use excerpts of it (under your name) in my South African Studies course. Great contribution in a very modest fashion. JJ from Tunis, Tunisia.

  65. chloecooper permalink
    September 23, 2009 3:03 pm

    First of all I LOVED this movie, and as a former film student i thought it was an incredible achievement and feather in the South African film makers cap and when I started reading this review I thought you were talking a load of bull. As I read on and saw that you did indeed appreciate this film I calmed down and read further. I do however have one or two comments to make.
    First the international audience is mad for it. It was number one in the U.S for two or three weeks and subsequently at number two-I think it might still be at number two, aswell as being number one in Britain. The U.S is a very difficult market to break into mainstream cinema and entertainment as many know so the fact that it is and has been top of the American box office is testament to the universality of the basic story and emotions.
    Second; you forget that that although it wasn’t written in to their constitution America, Australia and New Zealand had some form of segregation you forget about Rosa Parks and Black Panther movement of the sixties. And don’t forget in Australia they were allowed to shoot an aborigane on site until 1962 and until the 70’s they had camps in which to “breed the black out” So I don’t think the subtleties of a seperated society will be lost on our international audiences, and as for the film being Apartheid centred I disagree entirely, I grew up in the tail end of Apartheid and I understood all that was being hinted at-if anything. Obviously it had it’s roots in the idea as the director was more exposed to it than I was but I do not think that was the driving force behind the story. if anything the driving force was emotional and character driven.
    I know this is not a major point but I think it was a little unfair to call his wife and faded beauty, that implies something rather negative and I thought she was real looking and actually rather pretty.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 23, 2009 4:44 pm

      Hi Chloe – I am glad you spotted that I loved the movie. And I am not denying that there are wider resonances. Apartheid was not as unique as many people think, and that mix of racism, violence and bureaucracy was found in many places. So yes, I think people will ‘get’ important aspects of the movie wherever we find modernity and repression going hand in hand. Which is all over the globe these days.

      And I agree with you that it is character driven. I think without the character of Wikus the movie would have been a lot weaker.

      At the same time I do think there are many specific references to Apartheid history, and those references do mean that people ‘who were there’ would experience a whole other layer of meaning; the similarity with what was happening in KTC in the 1980s (and what the Red Ants are doing now!) is an important aspect of the movie.

      Is the success of the movie a testament to its ‘universality’ though? There I disagree. I think ‘universality’ is a dime a dozen. Perhaps this is just my take on things (I always see movies with an eye to the ancient myths they always end up retelling). But every story is universal, always.

      My theory of the success of the movie is that manages to feel so authentic. We live in an age of over-produced, over-hyped, smooth and polished movies. In most of what ends up on our screens, every scene has been laundered and polished, often not for its storytelling integrity, but to palliate an audience. I think what people love about D9 is its hard-edged, gritty sense of authenticity. (Check out Mary Ann Johannson’s excellent review on the flickphilosopher site for a typical reaction of this kind). It will be unlike anything most people have seen all year. It is fresh and funny and shocking and urgent. I think that is the reason for its success.

  66. Ruth permalink
    September 25, 2009 4:45 pm

    Brilliant, Andries, you hit a number of nails on their heads… It is a movie free of that killer self-conscious, arm-wringing sentimentality that’s been the downfall of a number of SA movies. Totally gripping, and works on different levels. Kudos to the creators.

  67. September 25, 2009 11:28 pm

    Andries: Thanks for writing the review I wish I could. I’ll be sharing this as far and wide as I can. Other friends and colleagues who’ve seen it (mostly non-SA) have all loved the film, but your review will help me communicate to them the extra layers I fear they may have missed. (As another Afrikaner who grew up in the 70s and 80s, now in the UK.)

    Thanks for hailing the blessed relief of a non-serious film about race and Apartheid. I feared South African artists were doomed to be forever locked into a po-faced, worthy perspective. It is by being honest and implicating the viewer (reminiscent of Man Bites Dog) that makes the film more relevant and hard-hitting than any well-meaning screed — and yet still succeed internationally as an action blockbuster!

    Also thanks for your thoughtful responses in the comments above. Your blog’s definitely going on my reading list.

    I’ll ask my nefie Danie Marais to mention your review (and blog) on his Unhappy Hour show this Sunday (Bush Radio). I’ll also suggest to him he should invite you over for an interview :)

    By the way, I read quite a few reviews via Metacritic after seeing the film, and Richard Corliss’ in Time was my favourite:

    http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1916009,00.html

    Still pretty superficial (that’s why yours was needed), but I thought it concisely nails the film’s key strengths. On the other hand, I was shocked by the indifferent little review in the usually-excellent Sight and Sound.

  68. September 27, 2009 7:11 pm

    Hi Andries,

    I am such a hopeless fan of my own country and watching District 9, I cannot begin to explain to you how proud I am of us! Yes, people can split hairs about the racism, the Nigerians, the rock spiders. There was not one element in this movie that disappointed me – at all. In fact, Wikus’ character blew me away! I couldn’t help but wonder what South Africans, who speak English as badly as him thought when they saw themselves in him. I love the fact that it represented a true South African culture. And I also love the fact that it reminded us of our horrid past. If we forget our history, we are bound to repeat it. Great review, awesome movie, FANTASTIC country! Well done!

  69. Jan-Bart permalink
    September 28, 2009 6:37 pm

    Andries,

    Excellent and powerful.

    JB

  70. Len Holdstock permalink
    October 1, 2009 10:39 am

    Andries, your review and the movie came to my attention via Bruce, the daddy of Wikus, the one that wants to moer you, apologies for that, i.e., the by-the-way contact, but i am far away from the local scene. What more can be said than has already been said. Your review was both a brilliant piece of academic scholarship and psychological insightfullness. Although the movie and your review cannot, strictly speaking, be considered in the scientific category, both validate the criteria held to be true for good scientific research, i.e., the amount of subsequent ideas generated. And here i was absolutely astounded by the numerous insightful comments i read in response to your comments on and of District 9. Congratulations are in order all around, starting with the movie and continuing with your review and the contributions to this blog. I have been involved in the psychological game of trying to unravel or at least trying to understand the individual and collective psyche all my life and was absolutely stunned by the wisdom emanating from the southern tip of the mother continent. Who knows, in District 10 a place may still be found for the aliens and the Nigerians and the Afrikaners on the soil of our African Earth Mother. Your blog certainly brings us together. Dagsê Tossie. Hallo Bruce. Hou so aan Andries, Groete.

  71. October 3, 2009 12:35 pm

    My take on D9, and your brilliant review –

    http://mhambi.com/2009/09/district-9-the-journey-from-african-to-alien/

  72. Colleen Higgs permalink
    October 4, 2009 8:51 am

    BTW – after watching a second time, also heard at least one of the “Nigerians” speak in Sesotho. For what it’s worth.

  73. Colleen Higgs permalink
    October 6, 2009 9:31 am

    Check this out, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about District 9…

    http://news.book.co.za/blog/2009/10/06/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-on-district-9-and-the-cultural-tensions-between-nigeria-and-south-africa/

    and you, Andries, are referred to as “South Africa’s leading film critic” …

    • andries du toit permalink*
      October 7, 2009 6:32 am

      Heheheh… A nice article, though!

  74. October 12, 2009 12:16 am

    This film draws on our experience of Apartheid-era functionaries for depth, but I see it as relating to a modern post-Apartheid South African xenophobia.

    In the era of sailship exploration, encounters with people on different continents presage how things might go if we were to enounter extraterriestrials today – and that doesn’t bode well.

    The film also brings to mind private security corporations at work in Iraq…

  75. The Trutherizer permalink
    October 12, 2009 3:01 pm

    I don’t like the use of the word rockspider to refer to Afrikaners, or even a type of Afrikaner. Call a twakkie a twakkie or a moegoe a moegoe, trailer trash, hill billy, whatever, but I think that term is decidedly uncool. How can you wax poetically about the clever de-humanization of the prawns through their portrayal as bottom feeding cockroaches and miss that? Wake up man… Ur either a fascist or have some un-resolved issues. Believe me when I say I am trying to help.

    • The Trutherizer permalink
      October 12, 2009 3:22 pm

      I just want to add that in no way was it a froth at the mouth rant. I just wanted to point it out, because of the light in which you framed the rest of your excellent review. I mean I am an Afrikaner yes and I recall an incident where I was dating an English speaking girl and she casually referred to Afrikaners as rockspiders. I was quite amused by the whole thing since she was quite happy in the relationship, maybe she thought that it was very nice of her to exclude me out of this vilified club in her own mind, but it did get me thinking…

  76. October 27, 2009 1:36 pm

    Nowhere left to run. The poor aliens in South Africa. Read this and the comments and weep. http://www.mg.co.za/article/2009-10-26-nowhere-to-run

  77. November 12, 2009 9:34 am

    A very good synopsis of a really great movie.

  78. xi'an permalink
    November 14, 2009 11:38 am

    Very insightful review. I am still under the spell of the movie I saw last night…

    Ps for Jawdett: Les Cahiers du Cinéma published a review of District 9 in September: http://www.cahiersducinema.com/article1908.html

  79. Vernon Hendricks permalink
    December 17, 2009 9:29 pm

    Andries, great review! I am proud of this movie – EVERYTHING about it is great! South Africa should produce more of these kind of movies and steer away from the kind of movies that foreigners have come to expect from us ie those that centre around black/white racial issues, opression, etc…District 9 is the kind of film that one would expect from the Americans, the special effects, etc. It brings back memories of the American movie “V” which was popular some years ago. And the story line, up to the very end, is amazing…the metal rose… So, maybe we can expect a sequel, afterall, the alien said he’ll be back in “three years time”. The acting is credible. The almost unkown actor does an amazing job. I enjoyed his Afrikaans accent and the fact that the lead was neither American nor British. See, we can do it. Great movie all round!!

  80. Someone permalink
    January 2, 2010 3:48 pm

    Brilliant review that cleared this movie up for me. I have a chaotic mind so I kinda hit the outskirts of the point of the movie.

    Firstly, I’m American and the media is a hot topic here. How the media portrays the real world and how it twists the facts bothers alot of us. I think this movie capured that brilliantly. When I saw how the aliens culture lacked ownership, my first thought was of the first British explorer who found Tahiti. Correct me if im wrong but I think his name was Captain Cook. Either way the natives there had the same culture, and the media ONLY showing videos of aliens snatching goods menicing and ominously, really made me think…

    ‘You know, I bet half the time the aliens arn’t so scary when they just randomly grab stuff.’

    So it showed how the media chooses their clips that best prove their point.

    Also, the idea of an alien race smart enough to make crazy weapons, and a giant ship that could destroy everyone. Yet passive enough to just get thrown into a ghetto made me think of Atlantis. Atlantians were supposed to be passive, harmonic, science loving people. They just got greedy twice and the second time they weren’t so lucky.

    If we humans weren’t as greedy and war like, or if a more peaceful culture was dominant, could we invent technology like the aliens by now? Has greed and lack of resources corrupt us humans like the humans in the movie corrupted the aliens carefree culture?

    I certainly found your ideas superior to mine because they were more numerous, and they found the heart of the movie where I was still trying to piece it together but that’s what I could come up with on my own.

  81. January 21, 2010 10:54 am

    Great review. Having Avatar come out in the same year and overshadow this movie made me reflect on what this movie meant to me. The thing that really got to me about District 9 was that I left wanting the movie wanting to know more about South Africa, researching Apartheid, and learning about race relations in that country. I was rather young when Apartheid ended (my only other exposure to it in film was through Sarafina), so this movie made me want to enhance what I knew about South Africa. I like that your review was very informative about inside things that foreigners wouldn’t get and had great links to help expand my knowledge. I loved this movie because it dealt with real issues and didn’t try to make everything pretty and wrapped up by the end of the movie.

    • therealwombat permalink
      January 21, 2010 4:27 pm

      While I haven’t seen AVATAR [Do read "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson.], I recently saw INVICTUS. From my point of view it was an excellent film. — Last night I finished Playing the Enemy by Carlin. I found it a fascinating read. The film is based on this book. It gave me a fair bit of background to the mood, politics and feel of the period from 85 to 95. Again, neither the author nor I am from SA. What an SA citizen may think, is another story. However, one can only interpret what one sees thru their background.

  82. Pat permalink
    January 25, 2010 2:09 am

    Interesting, provocative, on-the mark review of this film which I saw in the theater September 2009. I wrote that

    “I thought there was nothing fabulous about this film except the underlying ethical dilemma confronted by humans who confront a group of stranded aliens who can’t leave the planet. Fascination in the new species quickly degenerates to a widely-held view of the large, bug-like creatures as “other” in this South African film directed by Neill Blomkamp. Personally, I felt it was much easier to “suspend [my] disbelief” because of the lack of recognizable actors—certainly familiar to South African audiences. The film is quite gory and violent, yet the underlying premise is reminiscent of any number of Holocaust films. A good film for discussion over coffee.”

    This review from a South African really brings the fine points of this film to the surface. Really appreciate this reading of this film. Since the end of the film seems to indicate that the Christopher will keep his word, unlike the authorities, do you think we’ll see a sequel and a saving of Wikus?

  83. darthzelda permalink
    March 21, 2010 11:16 am

    I’m not going to respond to this (now; perhaps later) except to say this is the essay on District 9 I’ve been waiting for, and that it’s well past 2 a.m. but I had to read the whole thing and the comments through. Thank you.

    I must also say that in scrolling down the results of my online search I clicked on this not only for the title of your essay, but for the name of your blog. I’m currently teaching The Subtle Knife in a children’s literature course at the university where I work. I don’t believe in fate, but am willing to concede serendipity.

  84. Willem Basson permalink
    May 28, 2010 2:51 pm

    Excellent review – worthy of the movie itself. The best film in my opinion to come out of South Africa yet. But maybe I am biased.

    I regret coming across this review only today, because my comment may be ‘mosterd na die maal’ as they say in Afrikaans.

    Like the movie, this review is not without at least one flaw I think:

    Yes, some commentaries following this review pointed out that the film does not only show the ‘awful Apartheid was, which is a card played- and a cliché repeated all too frequently nowadays by present politicians and propagandists, as well as movie reviewers, but that it is more importantly making reference to current xenophobia and racism as well. What I felt was missing in the review, and what I have picked up was missing from almost all the comments and reviews by foreigners I read at the time of release, is that the movie’s imagery is actually a contraction into one single unity of past and present socio-political phenomena in what appeared to me to be almost equal proportions. This in NOT a movie about the Apartheid era as such. It is, apart from the universality of it subject, a specific statement about ongoing racism and xenophobia in the PRESENT which almost exactly mimicks that of the very past its perpetrators so vocally purport to condemn.

    What I felt reviewers and commentators failed to have noticed is the close resemblance many scenes in the movie exhibits for instance to what has been happening in Kennedy Road and to the shack dwellers movement Abahlale baseMjondolo in 2005 as well as what is happening on that front right NOW in many informal settlements. Xenophobia is is just a small part of this much bigger picture of social injustice currently taking place in South Africa. We now see a large segment of born citizens of South Africa being turned into disenfranchised aliens in their own country! The latest I heard about S’bu Zikhode, the head of Abahlale, is that he and his family is in hiding, after what appears to be a local-government-instigated attack on his house and subsequent burning down of it in Kennedy Road, around September last year. Déjà vu.

    So, it surprises me that (almost) nobody seems to have been picking up on this.

    By contracting past Apartheid and present (very much post-Apartheid) imagery into one seemless unified whole, I believe the film is bringing home the disturbing point: ‘Same old shit …just new faces.’

    ‘Forget about the racist and xenophobic atrocities of the past,’ it seems to say, ‘rather worry about those in the present!”

    • andries du toit permalink*
      May 28, 2010 3:26 pm

      Thank you! I think your comments are spot on… MNU in the movie clearly does reference the Red Ants and all the politics around ‘Human Settlements’… Though in all fairness I do think we the discussion did touch on that point in the follow-up piece….

  85. May 29, 2010 12:05 am

    I am impressed with the review, the manner that it is written in and the arguments that it sets forward. I am can tell you that as a Rwandan (and more importantly, as an African), I was sitting in the cinema feeling a little self-conscious.

    But that seems like naught compared to the cringing and sweating “white” people in the cinema. It was more than a guilt trip though, it was the cinematic dissection of human existence, especially in the SA context. It was shocking, it was good, it was sad and it was funny.

    This and Avatar are some of the only instances that make my question my humanity.

    • May 30, 2010 11:54 am

      Have just posted this response to seeing Andrew Buckland’s ‘The Ugly Noo Noo’ at the Baxter. I have long suspected that is was a seminal influence on ‘District Nine’.

      http://words-ekapa.blogspot.com

      Here’s what I said:
      ‘The Ugly Noo Noo’ and the New South Africa
      Have just seen Andrew Buckland’s brilliant one-man play, ‘The Ugly Noo Noo’. First performed at the Market Theatre in 1988, it has worn extremely well. In fact, it has gained an unexpected contemporary resonance – it was clearly a seminal influence on Blomkamp’s District Nine.
      At its most obvious level the play is a hilarious take on the fear and loathing inspired by the infamous ‘Parktown prawn’ – in reality a quite harmless, oversized cricket which invades gardens and houses and has some alarming habits (it can jump waist-high, and defecates in response to threat). It is also an (accidental) alien invader, brought to Joburg in loads of sand from some coastal area. It has adapted to its new urban environment and is remarkably resilient, resisting most attempts to exterminate it.
      Back in the dark days of the 1980s, faced with multiple threats, real or imagined (the ‘rooi gevaar’, the ‘swart gevaar’, the ANC underground, MK) the play was a vehicle for political satire and sly subversion. Buckland’s performance inevitably generates sympathy for the despised ‘prawns’ – and provides a mock-serious expose of the ‘species-ism’ of which we humans are guilty. As the prawns are humanised through Buckland’s performance, the humans are defamiliarised. As we are obtain a prawn’s eye view of the human species, we realize what strange creatures we really are!
      In the contemporary South African context The Ugly Noo Noo gains further, unexpected significance. One cannot help but be reminded of the recent xenophobic violence, when foreign ‘aliens’ were hacked to death, burnt alive, or driven into refuge camps (an event which also clearly informs Neill Blomkamp’s film).
      The play’s exploration of our irrational fears and loathings is as relevant now as it was in 1988. Come back Andrew Buckland!

      • andries du toit permalink*
        May 31, 2010 2:54 pm

        Interesting. But I don’t think we should be too quick to ascribe influence… Do we know that Blomkamp saw the Buckland play? He’s rather young… And he has certainly indicated that the idea for the movie germinated BEFORE the xenophobic violence in SA…

        • May 31, 2010 3:02 pm

          He did?

          Not so sure of that.

          In Alive in Joburg he used actual TV footage of anti-foreigner protests, and less we forget, some estimates put it at 500 foreigners killed before May 2008. Most notably 40 in one month in 2006 just outside Houtbay.

          • andries du toit permalink*
            May 31, 2010 3:12 pm

            I meant he indicated it germinated before the May 2008 attacks. The script was in the market for funding in 2007 already. And if I recall correctly, Alive in Joburg is from as early as 2005. As you correctly point out, that movie was made in the context of an ongoing xenophobic climate that long predated those events.

  86. Willem Basson permalink
    June 1, 2010 12:39 pm

    “Interesting. But I don’t think we should be too quick to ascribe influence… Do we know that Blomkamp saw the Buckland play? ”

    Perhaps he did and perhaps he didn’t – but is is nevertheless a tantalizing thought.

    I must confess that I too was immediately reminded of The Ugly Noo Noo when I saw District 9, even though I haven’t even seen Buckland’s play yet. But there were several reviews at the time of the play’s premiere serving to raise wide awareness of its existence and which contributed to turning ‘Ugly Noo Noo’ and ‘Parktown Prawn’ into new household words. Often these influences reach us through a process of diffuse cultural osmosis, so Rob’s point may still be valid even if Blomkamp never saw of were aware of the play.

    An interesting question to me is who, historically, came up first with the idea of associating noonoos with foreigners and terrestrial foreigners with extra terrestrial aliens? To what extent do Blomkamp’s prawns intentionally resemble them? The one scene where the prawn excretes copious amounts of urine during a confrontation with the MNU officials and their ensuing disgust reminds me of the behaviour of the noo noo’s habit of excreting a revolting smelling fecal fluid when similarly threatened.

    Another interesting topic for discussion would be the various scraps of clothing and head scarves worn by the aliens. There may be all sorts of references and hidden township coding in there.

  87. June 13, 2010 3:07 am

    I too believe that this is one of the best movies that has come out of South Africa. Unfortunately I believe that you have to have lived in South Africa to understand some of the subtle undercurrents of the script. I have it on DVD and have watched it 5 times. This review makes me want to put it on again right now.

    • darthzelda permalink
      June 13, 2010 3:32 am

      I have it on blu-ray and have watched it 20 times. It is much, much better structured than many critics suggest. I don’t live in South Africa, I live in Canada, but even so I think there are layers in it that acknowledge its various audiences and how they will react to it/what they will react to. I am especially interested in the alternate history aspect, as while I can see a functional motive in having had the aliens arrive almost 30 years ago (so everyone’s not always just staring up at the sky going OMG what if it crashes, what if it attacks, etc., and the language barrier has been partly breached), there is of course the fact that the stretch from 1982 to 2010 (even to 2007 or 8, when the movie was made) existed in the history that we lived through, and so I cannot help questioning: did this event have an impact on that history? did it happen in the way we think about it? were events slowed or hastened? did the writers think about this? I suspect they must have, and frankly I find that question – how do the events of District 9 intersect with the local/global historical events of the world as we know it? – much more interesting than what might happen in a sequel.

  88. Lebo Ramafoko permalink
    August 8, 2010 11:38 pm

    I am very happy you acknowldge that this a is a white voice/perspective coming out. As a black person, I did not find the briliiance you refer to and instead, once again, the white rescuer do gooder was there to save us.

    • darthzelda permalink
      August 9, 2010 12:55 am

      Lebo Ramafoko makes an excellent and necessary point: it’s too easy especially for “outsiders” to forget that this movie is not only a white but a white expatriate perspective. And the points I raised (sorry to be so repetitive, but I do have this discussion in my RSS feed) about the alternate history elements increasingly trouble me, since there is a clear implication that “the government” essentially hands over full responsibility for District 9 to MNU, which acts in a de facto governmental way. No implication is made of the reaction of the public at large or the actual government to how MNU handles the situation: it seems to an extent answerable to the UN-type body (UIO) but not beyond that. So is the film’s silence in this area a refusal to deal with this alternate reality’s intersection with the actual series of events in the actual South Africa from the early 1980s to the present? Or is it intended to imply that MNU has essentially *become* the government, in a much broader-reaching dystopian vision? I’d really like someone to pin Neill Blomkamp down on these questions. That said, he continually reminds us in his director’s commentary on the film that it is an entertainment as much as an allegory, but its situation is somewhat different than that of, say, Watchmen (even though it is comparable, as Watchmen was also written from an outsider’s perspective: a British view of America from the age of gangsters (and the dawn of the comic book superhero) through the dawn of the atomic age and the Cold War to the 1980s and the threat of annihilation). *That* said, it’s also worth keeping in mind that the protagonist, Wikus, is never really a do-gooder and never really makes the conceptual leap to thinking in general, of the mass of others. He sacrifices himself and his chance of getting back to his wife (really his only personal motivator) to allow the alien designated Christopher Johnson to rejoin his son and get the drop ship to the mothership. He does not really seem to think much beyond that. Indeed, the *only* characters in the movie who show a desire and willingness to act on the needs of the masses of others are “Christopher Johnson”, whose focus once he visits the bio-lab is firmly on saving his people, and Fundiswa, who starts from a sort of defensiveness about Wikus, but decides to blow the whistle on MNU in general. I don’t really come away from watching this with any strong sense of a white hero: I feel more a sense of general indictment of human selfishness and cruelty. However, the political implications still trouble me. If those gaps are meant to tease us into thought, that’s fine. But if they’re just avoidances, that’s serious. Don’t think I’ll say more as I may write something on this in another venue.

  89. Jenny C permalink
    October 28, 2010 12:39 am

    I got the dvd out, remembering some hype about it when it hit the box office – but apart from that I knew nothing about it. I read the back of the box and thought okay… will watch it. As it started I nearly turned it off – a mockumentary about South Africa! But no. I was SERIOUSLY attached to the screen for the rest of the movie. It was brilliant. Even though I’m not from South Africa I had studied it’s history and I did get some of the subtle things – though of course not with the impact you would have. The racism thought processes were amazingly depicted. (I read a book once called The Psychology of South Africa). Thank you for such an articulate review and discussion. It did remind me of some of the ways we treat refugees and ‘boat people’, and our own indigenous people here in Australia.

  90. Lesley permalink
    April 6, 2011 12:34 pm

    I saw this film for the first time today and I was blown away. Brilliant. So is this review. Thank you. I agree, this is South Africa warts and all. So refreshing.

  91. May 9, 2012 11:09 am

    An intelligent, well-argued essay. I particularly enjoyed the way in which you peeled back the multiple layers in this thought-provoking film. Made all the more effective by your lucid writing and the clarity with which you make your points. Nice one!

  92. October 4, 2013 1:42 pm

    Reblogged this on I love Sophiee.

  93. October 4, 2013 1:46 pm

    hi, im chossing this film as my political movie review assignment. I hope u dont mind if I use your thoughts as one of my references

    • andries du toit permalink*
      October 4, 2013 7:11 pm

      Of course not! Good luck with your assignment.

  94. TomViolenz permalink
    December 6, 2013 4:04 pm

    Very good analysis, of a good film!
    For me as someone not knowledgeable about SA, it was a film about the human condition and it did an uncomfortably good job portraying it.
    On the other hand, for this focus, the local specifica and humor was a little distracting, it took something away from the urgency! And while the setting of a scifi story was necessary and brilliantly done, it left me as an unsuspecting viewer disappointed. I was expecting a scifi flic and was getting a gritty social analysis instead. (This is not the movies fault of course, I could have just read a few reviews first).
    Your analysis though, should be required reading before watching the movie :)

  95. February 25, 2014 3:30 pm

    Thanks for the review. It was interesting to read it. I liked the film, but somehow it was disturbing for me the lack of major powerful African characters.
    I hope there won’t be District 10.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      February 25, 2014 3:41 pm

      Yes, no major African character. It is very much a white view of the ghetto…

      But Blomkamp has made District 10. District 10 is in the sky, and it is called Elysium…

      • February 25, 2014 3:45 pm

        But Elysium is not about “prawns” and Christopher and Vikus. ;)

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