becoming the alien: apartheid, racism and district 9
Warning: spoilers follow!
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.
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.
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.’
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’.
And 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.
All 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?