Monday, August 17, 2009
Alive in Joburg: District 9
I just saw this movie yesterday with my husband. I really wanted to see it mostly because it takes place in South Africa- and really, what better place to set science fiction movie that is really about human/race relations?
Above is a short film that was made a few years ago, maybe as a run up before the film. The aliens in the movie look different, but it's interesting in its own right.
The premise is that 20 years ago a spaceship stopped over Joburg and the aliens inside were taken in as refugees. Their refugee camp became known as District 9, and looks pretty much like the actual townships that surround Joburg. The aliens are treated a less-than humans. So obviously the filmakers are drawing connections with South Africa's past. I've seen other reviews that complain that the movie doesn't even mention the word Apartheid. And it's true that if the spaceship really appear 20 years before, that it would be interesting to know how the Apartheid government might have dealt with this fictional problem. (I doubt they would have put up with refugee camps for aliens at all.)
But what if this movie isn't about Apartheid at all? What if it is about the more recent issue of xenophobia in the townships, not between blacks and whites but between native South Africans and immigrants from elsewhere in Africa, especially Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the Congo. Though this short film was made three years ago and the actual film was at least alive in concept before the events of last year, certainly the violence errupted after years of tension. It's as if this film predicted what might happen.
The aliens in the film are dreadful to look at. They are dipicted as onry, with eating habits designed to make us recoil: raw meat and cat food. So, even though they are treated horribly by humans, they make us uncomfortable. It can make you agree with the humans who say they want the aliens to live far away from the city- and that is a scary way to feel when you realize the aliens are supposed to symbolize actual people. The movie could have done a much better job giving us more aliens with names and personalities, and more than just one character with any intelligence or ambition to improve his situation. From what I can tell, there are no female aliens, they are all very masculine - I felt the one alien wearing a bra was doing so ironically.
Even so, I think it was an interesting technique, to make the aliens unlikable. The point, to me, was that we don't have to like the refugees in our care. We don't have to enjoy their company or appreciate their culture- it doesn't matter how we feel about refugees. It doesn't matter if they are grateful to us or if they hate us. What matters is how we treat them. To treat them poorly is to lose our own humanity. By the end of the film, the archetypal South Africa mercencary is just as ugly and dirty and animalistic in his efforts to kill the main character as the aliens appear in the first scenes of the film.