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the alienation effect: further thoughts on D9.

September 12, 2009

It has been an interesting week. District 9 has continued to excite much interesting debate, and so has the damned Huntley affair. I have lately been laid low by a virus – relax, it is neither H1N1, nor something of alien provenance – just a middle-ear infection; but it gave me opportunity for many fevered dreams, in at least one of which I found myself living on a rainy pine-infested landscape, sharing a homestead with Wikus, Brandon Huntley and Caster Semenya, who for some reason appeared to be white. The pine forest referencing not so much Brandon’s (now, it seems, perhaps temporary home) but the book I am reading now, Annie Dillard’s gorgeous novel of North American colonial life, The Living. Which is another kettle of fish entirely.

For now, what want to do is to offer a few more thoughts on that fascinating movie.  I have been to see it a second time; I have learned a lot from other reviews and  from some thoughtful and perceptive comments on my previous post;  I have been trawling the  internets with delight and alarm.  I’ve also had the occasion of an interesting email exchange with Barnor Hesse, one of the more penetrating observers of racism in these ‘post-racial’ times. I thought I would offer for more general discussion and tearing-apart some of what I wrote to him.


The 'Nigerians' prepare to 'harvest' Wikus.

Firstly, regarding the ‘Nigerians’. I think a few things can be borne in mind. Firstly, it is undeniably true that the movie serves up a very in-your-face, stereotyped image of the African racial other, with all the signs and signifiers familiar from hundreds of years of racial stereotyping.  The ‘Nigerians’, indeed, are almost surrealistically caricatured: as Belle Prannyshake pointed out in her perceptive comments in this blog and elsewhere, they are ‘cannibalistic, lusty, hot:’  one of them walks around with a python around his neck; I swear that I saw one with a hyena on a leash; and consistently the camera emphasises their brutality, their blackness, their bestiality, etc.  It is, indeed, strong meat.

Secondly, it does bear remembering that the movie has its origins in a short film very deliberately and consciously seeking to problematize South African discourse about immigrants and specifically ‘Nigerians.’ Blomkamp’s clip ‘alive in Joburg’  is fascinating viewing; one of the best examples of the Brechtian  ‘alienation effect’ (ahem!) I have seen: for the movie, Blomkamp interviewed real South Africans talking about immigrants, and juxtaposed the vox pops with footage of space aliens.   The decontextualization effected by the science fiction works powerfully and subversively to highlight  the dehumanizing logic of xenophobic discourse. As Belle points out, it is dangerous to get into ‘intentions’ when analysing a text, but I do think that we can at least allow them to complicate our readings.

Thirdly – and perhaps this is another place where foreigners will miss out on some subtleties – the ‘Nigerians’ in the movie are not Nigerians at all.  The indigenous medical practices attributed to them are  to my knowledge not at all ‘Nigerian’ in character, but much more local in nature.  Quite a few times, some of them seem to be speaking what sounds like Swahili.   I was powerfully reminded of my days of living in Muizenberg, where I would often hear complaints about the ‘drug-dealing Nigerians’ by local whites… none of whom could explain to me why most of said ‘Nigerians’ spoke French.    Same in the movie. The ‘Nigerians’ are in fact named as such only by the whites in the movie.  In other words, the movie is careful to give us clues that they  are ‘Nigerian’ only in  the way that Rwandans, Cameroonians, Senegalese, Somalis and Congolese in South Africa are ‘Nigerian’ – viz. only within a very particularly racist gaze. So it is clear  that Blomkamp and co are doing something rather complex – not so much offering  a racist caricature, as caricaturing racist stereotypes themselves – which is a different thing entirely.

Fourthly, on seeing it a second time, I had the nagging but distinct sense that although the ‘Nigerians’ are portrayed as brutal, bestial, etc etc, there is also a distinct sense in which they are admirable. They are the only humans in the film who do not react to the aliens with squeamishness. They are uncannily like Wikus in one sense (they want to become the Alien); but they are also like the MNU (they want the weaponry).   They are at home in the landscape that most humans regard with distaste, and which the MNU can only occupy and traverse with weapons and armoured vehicles.  Most importantly, there is an honesty about ‘Obesandjo’s’ lust for power that contrasts very favourably with the MNU’s heartless machinations.

This is linked to a bigger set of underlying issues, which is that I think the Nigerians are deeply necessary to the ‘representative economy’ of the movie, in that they represent a very particular set of ideas and narrative possibilities. In a way, Wikus, the MNU and the ‘Nigerians’ all represent very distinctly different ways of relating to alienness.

Greimasian squareThis diagram may look familiar to some of you: it looks a bit like a Greimasian semeiotic square, which is a way of exploring conceptual opposition and contrast in a text or representation.  In a Greimasian thinking, the opposition between the concepts ‘human’ and ‘alien’  is one that involves not two terms, but at least four:  for example, not only  human and alien but also  not-human, not-alien.

This helps us understand the nuances of this opposition much more clearly.   In the above diagram, the  horizontal axis, left to right, relates to the ‘alien’/ not ‘alien’ distinction.   On the left are Wikus and the MNU – the side of the ‘us’ in racist discourse, defined in opposition to ‘alienness’, and whatever it is that exists in the expelled, cordoned off terrain of ‘District 9’.   On the right is the ‘other’, that-which-needs-to-be-expelled (and expelled ever further; as we learn right at the start of the movie, District 9 is  not far enough: the nightmare logic of racism is that District 9 turns out to be too close; it needs to be cleaned up and replaced by District 10). And as is very clear from the movie, this is a terrain that belongs as much to the ‘prawns’ as to the ‘Nigerians’.

But that is not the only axis of differentiation.  The vertical axis, the axis of up-and-down, differentiates the protagonists according to the extent to which they are ‘human’ – capable of fellow-feeling, kinship loyalty, and vulnerability.  This is what separates Wikus and ‘Christopher Johnson’ from the MNU and the ‘Nigerians’: while the MNU and the Nigerians are ‘inhuman’ and heartless, interested only in power and exploitation,  the movie links  Wikus and the ‘Prawns’ with themes of sentiment and affection (thus we have Wikus’s  love for Tanya,  and we also have the classic, almost corny  Bill Cosby- style  father-son bond between ‘Christopher Johnson’ and ‘his’ alien ‘son’).  Most importantly, Wikus and the Aliens have this in common: they want to get ‘fixed’.  They want to go home.

So the ‘Nigerians’ are not a simple afterthought or a plot mechanism.  They embody the possibility of  gutsy human survival and adaptation within the badlands of ‘district 9’.  They are clearly preferable to MNU: much less calculating, and also much cooler in a kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max way.   There is much, one might think, that Wikus might be able to learn from them, and they from him.  But  the film maintains the separation between Wikus and them: his heart belongs with his ‘angel’ in the white suburbs;  even though he has become an alien by the end of the movie, he cannot ‘go over’ to ‘that other side.’  While Wikus might go home, and while the Aliens might fly away to their distant planet, the Nigerians are the true aliens of the film,  comfortabe denizens of the crime and war zone.

Which brings me to my fifth point:  I do think that the representation of the ‘Nigerians’ is the one place in the film where the movie falters in its ability to unpick the workings of racist ideology.  Because, for all of these interesting complexities, the reality is that the movie does not obviously withdraw or complicate its apparent endorsement of the African stereotypes.  There are ironies and complexities  —  but they  are evident only to a fairly sensitive and conscious viewer.  In fact, the film actively pushes these complexities in side.  The crucial flaw, in fact, lies  lies precisely in this:  it relies for its narrative drive, for its satisfaction of the ‘adventure’, on the antagonism against (and the extermination of) the ‘Nigerians’.   So even though the real villains are all white, and even though the movie subtly mocks xenophobic discourse, many audiences will no doubt identify with this ‘othering’, and will cheer when Wikus’s alien exoskeleton kills them all so picturesquely.

So, as I said, a troubling film.  But, I think,  important and worth taking seriously for all that. In the end, despite these flaws, the movie works powerfully to raise disconcerting questions about identity and ‘othering’ both inside and outside South Africa.  As a South African today, where ‘aliens’ are still routinely deported, I think the film is playing an enormously important role in asking questions  and encouraging debate about the way in which xenophobic logic and modernity still interpenetrate in our government today.     In those terms, it has been massively successful, at least here.  And it has relevance beyond South Africa.  As many commentators have pointed out, the alliance of brutal violence and bureaurcratic form that it so carefully depicts is found in Guantanamo Bay as much as it is in Gauteng.  MNU’s DNA is that of Blackwater and Halliburton as much as it is that of Armscor and Denel.


And somehow – and this, I think is the genius of the film – it has done so in a way that almost perfectly marries form and content.    Why does the film ‘need’ to be a science fiction film in order to make its points about South Africa… and why does it take a South African setting to make a science fiction film which feels so grittily real? The answer is, I think, twofold.  Firstly, that the best science fiction has always been ‘news from the present’, focusing on what we are through pictures of what we are becoming. And secondly,  I think one can say that postcoloniality is futurity. If the future is now, what country better encapsulates that future than South Africa, with its confluence of violence, race, inequality,technology, regulation, despair and hope?

25 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2009 7:49 pm

    This is fantastic. (And I’m flattered that you quoted me.) No time for a thoughtful approach now, as Wilde’s Pomegranates need work, but I shall think on it.

  2. Sarah Pett permalink
    September 12, 2009 9:11 pm

    You did see a man with a hyena on a leash – see pieter hugo for more of them

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 12, 2009 9:25 pm

      I thought so. And several people have pointed out how the film borrows from Pieter Hugo. I went back a second time specifically hoping to spy the hyenas. Got so caught up I missed ’em again.

  3. September 13, 2009 2:15 pm

    It’s true that the Nigerians were labelled as such by those commentators – now that I think of that, I can accept that aspect of your argument. But I’m still not convinced. The thing which worries me is that in the end the “Nigerian” gang boss big motivation was to eat a bit of Wikus. Which in itself is not that problematic – could have been handled in an interesting way. Quite a thought. But the way it played on in the movie was like this: at that moment when that gang boss made clear what he wanted, he lost all his power. He came across as a superstitious fool. Maybe that is just another example of the negative way that all humans are portrayed in the movie. But combined with all those black women undulating with snakes and slurping up bodily fluids of various kinds, my bullshit detector went on high alert.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 13, 2009 3:44 pm

      Any more supersitious than MNU wanting to ‘harvest’ Wikus? And then? What would they do with the bits?

      I think your bullshit detector was meant to be on high alert from the beginning; I think that is kind of the point, with the ‘Nigerians’.

      • September 15, 2009 9:26 pm

        Perhaps part of the problem with the reception of the film is that many folks’ bullshit detectors have detected bullshit, but are not clear about the detection from which the bullshit comes – which may, as andries has suggested, be a consequence of a flaw in the film rather than in the bullshit detectors.

        But on a different note, I am wondering whether anyone knows whether Blomkamp has commented on the questions that have arisen in response to the film – particularly, of course, those relating to the “Nigerians”?

        Also, hello uncle pett.

  4. September 18, 2009 11:54 am

    You might be interested – if you haven’t come across them already – in the blogs on District 9 by Henry Jenkins (US communications scholar and author of Convergence Culture) in his Confessions of an Aca Fan blog. He writes on District 9 and Transmedia – and Afrofuturism and District 9 –

    I think you both have a lot in common. What you add, as South African, is something I have noted overall in the discussion of the movie – a recognition that this is more a post-apartheid story than a reflection on apartheid history alone. Thank you for the great reviews.

  5. September 19, 2009 6:07 pm

    “Nigeria’s government is asking cinemas to stop showing a science fiction film, District Nine, that it says denigrates the country’s image. Information Minister Dora Akunyili told the BBC’s Network Africa programme that she had asked the makers of the film, Sony, for an apology. She says the film portrays Nigerians as cannibals, criminals and prostitutes. An actor from the film said that it was not just Nigerians who were portrayed as villains. ”

    “Ms Akunyili said said Nigeria was now hitting back with a policy of “rebranding”, after allowing the international community to define the country based on the behaviour of “[a] few criminals”. She said that Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry was also being pressed to help portray Nigeria in a better light. But Mr Khumbanyiwa said Nigerians in the cast did not seem worried by the portrayal of their country. He suggested that the film, which depicts people wanting to eat aliens to gain the superhuman powers, should not be taken too literally. “It’s a story, you know,” he said. “It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place.” “

  6. District Pedant permalink
    September 20, 2009 10:31 am

    Blomkamp’s short is entitled ‘Alive in Joburg’ – not Johannesburg. A much punchier name, with rhythm. More subtly, it’s ‘Wikus van _de_ Merwe’ in the credits without the ‘r’ – I’m guessing for trademark reasons and to avoid the many van der Merwes being up in arms.

    Let’s be faithful to the source material we reference.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 20, 2009 2:45 pm

      Oops, you’re so right. I’ve been noticing it each time and not getting round to fixing it. Thanks for the prod.

      Re ‘van de Merwe’ – really? Yikes. I did not notice. And you’re right.

      It could be because there really is a Wicus van der Merwe. I think he’s a musician from the West Coast or something.

  7. District Pedant permalink
    September 20, 2009 10:02 pm

    Search on Facebook for ‘Wikus van der Merwe’. Hundreds of them, varyingly amused. There are only seven with ‘Wicus,’ including the comedian/musician – who is playing Benoni in December, I see.

  8. tracy dunn permalink
    September 21, 2009 2:58 am

    did you read this in the NY times?

  9. September 21, 2009 9:50 pm

    Really, really impressed. Fantastically intelligent analysis.

  10. Timothy Maurice Webster permalink
    September 23, 2009 12:43 am

    Wow, your insight about the entire movie is exacting and the thoughts around the Nigerian relevance is simply brilliant… which I guess is why there are a few Nigerians raving about how well the movie is made, great job!

  11. Cathy Powell permalink
    September 25, 2009 10:00 pm

    First, thanks for both these stunning blogs on D9. It is the best film I’ve seen all year – and one of the best ever – and you express the strengths of the film so beautifully.

    I’d like to add some musings on the Nigerians. I must say, I admired this aspect of the film. I think it explored a wider theme of the ‘warlord’ scenario – of the kind of person who rises to the top of the heap when a social group lives in conflict and deprivation. As you point out, this is an international phenomenon, but it is also an African one. Incidents of sadism and cruelty such as that demonstrated by the ‘Nigerian’ leader are well documented in the civil wars of Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mozambique. I respect the bravery of the film in dealing with it.

    Having both black and white sadists (the mercenary Kobus and the ‘Nigerian’ warlord) also helps to underscore the contrast between deliberate, sadistic cruelty and the detached, scientific cruelty of the doctor experimenting on Wikus. I think that was an important contrast in the film; it makes us aware of the spectrum of human evil, and our own place in it.

  12. Rock-it permalink
    September 27, 2009 2:17 am

    While I was reading this, as you wrote how the “Nigerians” were the ‘non-human’ willing to breach taboo barrier, it occurred to me that they also loosely fit the bill as settlers, colonialist entrepreneurs, the denied but inevitable and implicitly necessary companion to the MNU and SA government’s affectations of indifferent bureaucracy/corporatism and sterile legality mentioned in your previous assessment (or the desire to assimilate without becoming).

  13. Katherine permalink
    October 12, 2009 4:03 pm

    Any thoughts on the complete lack of female representation in District 9?

    • Cathy Powell permalink
      October 12, 2009 4:16 pm

      They’re not completely absent. There is Wikus’s wife, and I’m not sure that I agree with Andries that the film treats her as a non-character; a Benoni housewife caricature. There’s a subtle shift in her demeanour from the (chronologically) early moments – when she’s welcoming Wikus home to his surprise party – and the later scenes, when she’s talking to the camera. I remember that the contrast struck me from the beginning of the film, because it mixes up the time frame by showing the ‘early’ and the ‘late’ woman at the same time. So you keep seeing the contrast. At the beginning, she is cute, hesitant, and under her father’s thumb; she gets distressed easily and tries to please everybody. By the end she is ‘insisting’ that the police bring back all the stuff they took from her house to investigate Wikus so that she can keep the mementoes of him; she’s also prepared to believe that Wikus made her the flower despite the mocking of her friends. There’s a kind of serenity about her. I’m not sure where this comes from, or what the film makes of it, but it’s there. I have a feeling she could play an important role in the sequel.

  14. Katherine permalink
    October 12, 2009 6:53 pm

    I must say that my gut reaction went with Andries. Tanya struck me as at best a non-character and at worst an insipid bimbo, but I take your point and agree that there was some shift in her charcter as the film developed.

    I still however find the quality of female representation concerning. The only two female characters we have any exposure to are Tanya and the witch doctor. Neither of which step out of their stereotypes in any meaningful sense.

    • Cathy Powell permalink
      October 12, 2009 7:01 pm

      Yes, I get your point: in general women were absent or (largely) stereotypical. Which we can agree is a weakness of the film. Funny that you don’t even get any women among the aliens. Christopher Johnson could easily have been a female; he seems to be a single parent looking after a child, after all (and it would not have reinforced that many stereotypes to make him obviously female!). Do the aliens even have a sex? I can’t remember a moment in the film that suggests that gender or even sex plays a role in their society.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      October 14, 2009 2:33 pm

      Hi Cathy and Katherine… I think it is an interesting question, though I am not sure I we should fault the movie because it has stereotyped gender representations. I think one of the interesting things about the film is precisely THAT it deals in NOTHING BUT stereotypes — but it deals with them in complex and ironic ways.

      Tania is a case in point. She is a stereotype as much as Wikus is, at least in the beginning of the film. And as Cathy points out, by the end Tania too has needed to find a way of existing that challenges the norms of her society.

      You are so right about the issue of Alien gender. The little kid calls CJ ‘father’ but whose translation is it? We have no idea how aliens reproduce….

  15. Colin Darch permalink
    November 20, 2009 9:53 am

    The “Nigerians” do indeed speak Kiswahili at least some of the time, and quite slangy Kiswahili as well – the bit I caught, when Wikus is doing something aggressive, went something like “Mwache! Poa!” which means “Leave him, it’s cool.”

  16. John permalink
    January 6, 2010 9:40 am

    I have read elsewhere that up to 60 000 Nigerians entered the country within two years of South Africa’s borders liberalising in 1993. The term “Nigerian” soon became a generic term of abuse for foreigners in general. Spot on.


  1. the alienation effect: further thoughts on D9. - GF power
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