Friday 2 October 2009

Mere prawns

District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp (2009)

For people of my generation, generally too young to remember a great deal about South Africa’s apartheid government, it can be difficult to get your head around the appalling reality of a social system that existed until only 15 years ago. Neill Blomkamp’s science fiction film, District 9, brings home the shocking reality of apartheid in a way that a more ‘realistic’ film might have found difficult to do. Shot in a documentary style with hand-held cameras that give it a visceral immediacy, and with truly fantastic special effects, it avoids the didacticism of other overtly ‘political’ films of recent years, preferring the traditional science fiction technique of exploring the real world through allegory.

The film follows an amiable but slightly gormless Afrikaner bureaucrat named Wikus Van Der Merwe, who is tasked with clearing the titular Johannesburg township of its alien inhabitants, pejoratively known as prawns; interstellar refugees who arrived in a hulking starship 20 years previously. Accidentally contaminated with an alien substance, he undergoes a physical transformation that forces him to seek refuge in District 9 with the prawns he’d previously persecuted, and join forces with ‘Christopher Johnson’, a rebel prawn seeking to resist his species’ repression. The film positively bounds along with bucketloads of slime, blood, violent gun battles with bizarre high-tech weaponry, and large explosions.

The political overtones aren’t difficult to spot. The clearance of District 9 of its alien inhabitants is a fairly direct reference to the clearance of the ‘coloured’ inhabitants of the District 6 neighbourhood in the 1960s, while the repeated militarised incursions into the township, replete with armoured cars, helicopter gunships and casual brutality, can’t fail to bring to mind the repression conducted in the Black townships during the ‘state of emergency’ period of the 1980s.

Some reviewers have complained that the film lacks any mention of racial politics between black and white humans, and by using the favourite cinema trick of outsourcing the repression to an evil multinational, it evades the question as to whether this is an ANC or apartheid government that is victimising the prawns. I thought this was a useful device, however; abstracting from these complicating factors enabled the essential truth of the film to be perceived more clearly. Asking about the tensions between black and white humans misses the point that in this film humans (both white and black) represent whites, and the prawns are black. This science fiction allegory of the film also enabled the audience to enter into this parallel-universe apartheid more easily. Wikus’ early prejudice against the ‘prawns’ enabled his character to be seen in a more neutral light than if he had been making comments about ‘kaffirs’. Likewise, the prawns’ slightly repulsive alienness enables the audience to retain a distance in the early part of the film, until you come to the horrifying realisation that the kind of brutality inflicted on them was dished out to real human beings not that long ago.

One criticism of the film might be that the intensely collective nature of the struggle against apartheid is somewhat underplayed – it is the individual cleverness and bravery of Christopher Johnson and (belatedly) Wikus that achieve results, leaving the vast majority of prawns as apathetic spectators; but it may be unfair to expect Eisenstein or Ken Loach-style socialist politics from this sort of blockbuster. Despite this deficit, the conclusion to the film, which leaves nearly all the prawns in the squalid conditions they started off in, is hard hitting, and reflects the post-apartheid concordat that has formally liberated blacks and enabled a handful to achieve equality, but leaves the vast, vast majority of the population impoverished, with the de-facto racial inequality of South African society unresolved. District 9 is a rare and superior product, a film with enough brains to justify its massive explosions, but without the enjoyment-killing worthiness that so often accompanies complexity.

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