District 9

District 9 grossed $37m at box offices in its first weekend. What is even more surprising is that it was made in Hollywood. Could it be that Americans see their world and their government in this sci-fi drama?

A giant industrial spaceship hovers above Johannesburg. The government/corporate/military complex running the world, the MNU, decides to force its way in and finds over a million starving and leaderless aliens. It brings them down to the city to live in a filthy, militarized slum.

Twenty years later it starts evicting and relocating them to a concentration camp hundreds of miles from the city. In front of the mokumentary cameras, the official in charge of the relocation, Wikus Van De Merwe, is accidentally contaminated with an alien potion. It is only when he physically begins to turn into an alien and becomes a target of the MNU machine, that he realizes his humanity, and defends the aliens from persecution.

The film is a comment on both the past and the future. The connections with South Africa’s recent apartheid past are overt, and one can imagine this ugly scenario in the future. But it’s hard not to see the film as a parable for contemporary capitalism, using the segregation and discrimination of the aliens to expose the horror of the entire system in which they exist.

And it is merely existence – forced to eat cat food, fight over scraps and pick their way through rubbish on a daily basis. Other aliens have become part of the mafia of the Nigerian underclass that controls the gun trade and prostitution rings in the slum that is District 9.

The experiences and treatment of the aliens are not unlike the experiences of many marginalised people in the world today. “Alienation” is an apt term for both the oppressed and the oppressors, the victims of racism and the bigots, where the most marginalised are also oppressed by the slightly less marginalised.

The film was shot in a Soweto slum called Chiawelo, which lacks electricity and running water. People currently live in the same miserable conditions the aliens endure in the film. As Neill Blomkamp, District 9’s director, said of Chiawelo, “The people are warm, but the environment is so caustic and unbelievably disgusting to be in.”

Sylvia Khoza, a resident of Chiawelo, agrees: “This place is unsafe. There is all kinds of criminality: robbery, rape, murder and all that. The filmmakers had a lot of security with them.” While some residents have got jobs as extras, living conditions have not changed much.

Juxtaposed to the squalor of the slum are the amazing special effects of the virtual computer that sends a broken piece of machinery hiding under the shack of the other main protagonist, the alien Christopher Johnson, back to the mothership. This technological sophistication demonstrates a defiance beneath the misery the aliens suffer. When Christopher discovers the MNU is conducting experiments on aliens, his “people” as he describes them, he realises finding his way back to where they came from is the only solution.

This is a weakness in the film – the suggestion that the solution to racism is for the aliens to go home. But perhaps it only describes the reality that many feel, given their experience of racism. The story ends with the alien population, having more than doubled its numbers, relocated to another segregated camp, District 10.

The other weakness is the arguably racist portrayal of the Nigerians. “District 9 Hates Nigerians” is the name of the Facebook group set up to demand an apology from the filmmakers. It certainly is uncomfortable watching the Nigerian slumlord battle for Wikus’s alien arm in order to eat it, believing that it would give him the power to control alien weaponry.

But then almost all the characters in the film, as products of the environment in which they operate, are portrayed at one point or another as corrupt, ignorant or morally bankrupt.

District 9 is more raw, intense and polemic than any straightforward Hollywood fiction. Every frame exudes visceral horror, gloriously reviving the sci-fi tradition of nailing present reality by fantasizing about the future.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU