Sunday, August 09, 2009

DISTRICT 9 – Alienation, sangomas & “the alien problem”

I went to a special Sony Pictures Sydney preview of the Peter Jackson produced alien movie District 9 on July 30. The movie’s release date is August 13. While it might not do much for the real “alien problem” – the UFO mystery – I found it to be an entertaining science fiction movie with “a raw, authentic feel”, captured through an impressive blend of “authentic-looking images,” “mockumentary footage” and real, existing footage from actual news agencies. I look forward to seeing it again, to witness the wider reaction to it, and also to a sequel. A unique and unusual film, once you get into it, the story sweeps you along in an unlikely embrace with potent contemporary issues of real alienation, how media shapes our reality, rampant militarism and unchecked exploitation of secret power.

The film’s production information reveals:

“Over twenty years ago, aliens made first contact with Earth. Humans waited for the hostile attack, or the giant advances in technology. Neither came. Instead, the aliens were refugees from their home world. The creatures were set up in a makeshift home in South Africa’s District 9 as the world’s nations argued over what to do with them.

“Now, patience over the alien situation has run out. Control over the aliens has been contracted out Multi-National United (MNU), a private company uninterested in the aliens’ welfare. MNU will receive tremendous profits if they can make the aliens’ powerful weaponry work. So far, they have failed;; activation of the weaponry requires alien DNA.

“The tension between the aliens and the humans comes to a head when MNU begins evicting the non-humans from District 9, with MNU field agents responsible for moving them to a new camp. One of the MNU field operatives, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), contracts an alien virus that begins changing his DNA. Wikus quickly becomes the most hunted man in the world, as well as the most valuable – he is the key to unlocking the secrets of alien technology. Ostracized and friendless, there is only one place left for him to hide: District 9.”

While the above detail might seem in the “spoiler” category, in reality it is mere teaser for a fine and assured movie directing debut from Neill Blomkamp. District 9’s genesis most directly comes from Blomkamp’s low budget short “mockumentary” Alive in Jo’burg, where he dumps intergalactic aliens into the cultural mix of one of Africa’s most dynamic and then somewhat dystopian cities - Johannesburg. Capturing the reaction of this “alien intrusion” is potently enriched in confronting ways by the very real xenophobia and conflicts evident in the city in response to the problem of illegal alien of the neighbouring country kind. This outing inspires the style, approach and content of District 9.

The hapless Wikus gets the MNU gig of directing the relocation of the aliens from District 9. He describes them clumsily and condescendingly as “prawns.” They are collectively seen as revolting, and habitually scavenging in the dumps within District 9 and its surrounding areas bordering Johannesburg. Incongruously their massive mothership has been hovering above the city for 20 years in a scene reminiscent of “Independence Day.” This and other fleeting resonances with various sci-fi films are soon pushed aside with Blomkamp’s unique style and plot direction. The alien “prawns” can’t go home, and early attempts at inclusion give way to explicit parallels to apartheid and our contemporary treatment of refugees and those different to us. It is a real tribute to the filmmakers here that we have a highly focused and different reaction by films end.

The film captures many levels of action – the plodding heavy handed relocation efforts directed at alien undesirables by the menacing militarised MNU enterprise; the alienation of militarised technology, both alien and human (the latter through MNU’s similarities with private military and security enterprises in conflicts like Iraq); and one man’s confronting and frightening descent into alienation through personal evolution of the bizarre kind.

Another level between the mainstream world of humans and the bizarre world of the seemingly helpless and scavenging aliens is richly realised in the Nigerian underworld lair that runs a gamut of exploitative activities aimed at both humans and aliens. More darkly the Nigerian gang wants the unrealised alien power but try different exotic traditional African approaches. It is here I was fascinated to see a confronting aspect I covered in my own book “Hair of the Alien” where I describe some of more stomach turning activities of African shamans or sangomas, most notably in the taboo initiation rituals of Credo Mutwa. He tells of eating “alien” flesh in an attempt to gain alien power. The Nigerians also try such culinary routes to gain access to the alien’s control over their weaponry.

District 9 is a confronting and wild descent into multiple levels of alienation in unique and striking ways. I think it will be an intriguing and cult style hit at the box office. Films like this that not only engage in interesting and entertaining ways, but also cause us to confront all too familiar real experiences with alienation, are too rare. At the very least District 9 is a dark and gritty example of a very popular and enduring genre of film – the alien and us. Bring on the sequel.
(Images: Copyright Sony Pictures - used on the basis of reviewing the film)