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District 9 (film essay)

Posted on June 25, 2012 at 8:40 AM

The aliens encountered in District 9 (Blomkamp 2009) are treated with the same level of distain and indifference usually reserved for refugees and ethnic minorities. While the majority of “alien invasion” films depict humanity’s initial contact with extra-terrestrial life, District 9 concerns itself with the aftermath of “first encounter”; the process and struggle of co-existence. The film is set in South Africa and bears significant similarities to “Apartheid” system, particularly the “District 6” initiative. Here, black and white characters are reconciled by their hatred of the “prawn”, whose continual segregation from society seems to correlate with the moral decay of the state. However, while proposing to examine the causes and consequences of racism, the film has been criticised for being as racially simplistic and insensitive as those it condemns. This may have been an intentional technique on Blomkamp’s part, in order to permeate the audience with a racist mindset. District 9 offers some hope in the overcoming of racism and xenophobia, specifically through integration, but for the most part, hatred, fear and greed prevail.


Right from the beginning, District 9 establishes that morality is a virtue coerced, rather than offered. The faux-documentary opening informs the audience that “all the eyes of the world [were] on Johannesburg… we had to do the right thing”. This suggests that the initially humane and accommodating treatment of the aliens was not necessarily voluntary, but required, in order to conform to the charity that the rest of the world expected of South Africa. This parallels quite readily to the Apartheid era, which received enormous public scrutiny and criticism. What the nation expected was “music from the heavens and bright shining lights”. What they got was a population of unhealthy, aimless creatures, physically revolting and openly hostile to humanity’s self-appointed ambassadors.


What follows this “first contact” is a series of conscious and unconscious processes to oppress and debase the alien populace. First and foremost is the term used to describe the aliens – “Prawn”. This name not only refers to their disfigurement, but designates their entire species as bottom-feeding parasites. It creates in the minds of South African’s the image of a base entity, and unites black and white communities in their disgust for the aliens. The Prawns have been segregated and quarantined from the rest of the people, which further aggravates the feeling of opposition between the two groups. Since the humans have no communication with the Prawns, and view them only through the lens fashioned by the media, and the weapons company, they view them as an “Other”; a divergent and unwelcome presence in their society. While the appearance and demeanour of the Prawns certainly contributes to this feeling of mistrust, it is also in the interest of the government to dehumanise and distort their image, as it provides a useful scapegoat for all of society’s ills, and hides the inhumane treatment and experiments being carried out by the defence contractors.


The aerial shots of the District 9 depict the squalor and degradation of the Prawns’ living conditions, and are obviously very reminiscent of the black townships associated with Apartheid South Africa. They also conjure up images of the Nazi concentration camps; an idea which is confirmed by the protagonist Wikus, when describing the new site, District 10. These comparisons speak to something in human nature, be it the tendency for people to fear and reject the unknown, or the ruling classes’ ability to demonise the weak and defenceless for its own end. The source of this fear and hatred, however, is more difficult to comprehend.


One theory offered by District 9 is that the level of contempt a society treats its minorities, is proportional to the hostility offered back by the minority. In other words, the Prawns are treated as a dependant and sub-human people, and so they gradually fall into that role, which only confirms the initial prejudices of the humans, widening the gap between the two groups even further. The more the humans think of the “Other” as a primitive or animalistic entity, the more it gives them permission to treat them as animals. There are countless real life examples of this process throughout history, but the most obvious example is Nazi Germany, in which the Jewish people were demonised by the majority of citizens. Their prejudice was partly justified (in their minds) by a feeling of victimisation and disenfranchisement over their defeat in World War I, and was ironically used as a rallying cry through which the rest of the country was unified. Likewise, the people of South Africa, having been divided and oppressed by the yoke of Apartheid, are united in their fear and hatred of the “Prawn”. This phenomenon speaks to a contradictory desire in humans, to divide and categorise a society into opposing groups, and yet to be joined together in opposition to a common enemy.


The theme of dependency is also introduced by the film, most readily in the form of the “cat food” which is used as a mark of chemical reliance. It is quite clear that the aliens in the film do not like the humans. Some of them draw pictures on their houses to show how many humans they have killed, while others build traps for the military. However, the Prawns fear and depend on the humans, just enough to bend the knee. Whatever else the aliens have suffered at their hands, the humans did rescue them from the ship, and provided them with food and shelter. Without the humans, the aliens would surely die (having no way to return home), and this feeling of dependency, and perhaps even begrudging gratefulness, has enslaved the aliens to a life of subjugation. The idea of drug dependency is also present in the form of cat food, which the aliens have become addicted to. This plays into the suspicion that drug addiction is another brand of oppression initiated by the ruling class. The aliens are weakened by this reliance on cat food, and it distorts their ability to plan and reason, as evidenced by the one-sided negotiations with the Nigerians. The aliens even go so far as to sell their weaponry and ship parts for more cat food, surrendering their heritage for immediate gratification and an escape from the misery of persecution.


There are numerous links between the world presented in the film, and the District 6 initiative, most notably the relocation and ghettoization of an ethnic minority. However, the circumstances of District 9 are somewhat antithetical, in the sense that, during the Apartheid era, it was the minority oppressing the majority. Also, here, it is the aliens who are the unwelcome invaders, being oppressed by the natives. Nevertheless, a very similar system of subjugation is employed by the ruling class.


The suggestions of everyday people, regarding what to do with the Prawns, range from keeping them segregated, to sending them far away, to wiping them out with a “selective virus”. The racism levelled against the Prawns is actually quite genuine, as many of the interview subjects were responding to their opinions of Zimbabwean and Nigerian refugees. Conversely, the film has been criticised for being itself racist, especially in its depiction of Nigerian’s as psychotic, voodoo-worshipping cannibals. That said, if the Nigerian gangsters are presented as savages, the white characters at the top of the MNU power structure are positively sociopathic, seeking only the expansion of their corporate interests through the death and torture of hundreds.


One reason Blomkamp may have employed these clearly insensitive depictions in a film which purports to deal with the complexity of race relations, is that it serves to emulate a feeling of racism in the minds of the audience. It is almost impossible to sympathise with the Apartheid government, since they are oppressing a group so clearly like themselves. And yet the ethnic minority depicted in District 9 are mostly presented as hostile, and their physical appearance is quite frightening. Before being introduced to Christopher and his son, and learning the common humanity between people and Prawns, the audience could see themselves as being afraid and disgusted by these creatures. Perhaps Blomkamp is trying to present an image of the “Other” that actually correlates with how a racist individual may view a black person or a Jewish person.


If the film does offer any hope about the future of race relations, it is buried beneath an avalanche of violence, hatred, fear, and greed. For the most part, the angels of our better nature do not prevail, and circumstances by the end of the film have steadily declined. MNU has maintained power and authority over South Africa, silenced all of its political opponents, and relocated the Prawn populace to an area resembling Auschwitz. The hope present in the film is symbolised by the friendship between Christopher and Wikus. They have learned to respect each other’s differences, and realised a shared humanity. Christopher has been introduced to a side of people that isn’t violent and aggressive and afraid, and Wikus has learned what it is to be a Prawn, to be hunted and hated. District 9 offers a grim view of humanity, and its ability to oppress and demonise the weakest among us. Wikus develops empathy by quite literally stepping into the shoes of the “Other”. Integration and understanding are posited as the salvation of a multicultural (and multi-species) society; the salvation of knowing that the “Other” is just as afraid as you.

Categories: ESSAYS, Cinema

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