Sometimes the best way to approach the horrors of the real world is indirectly, through fantasy. Allegory can make important points free from the journalistic burdens. On its release in 2009, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was acclaimed as a clever sci-fi/action movie that used a story about alien refugees to explore South Africa’s shameful apartheid past. But today it’s imagery and ideologies have a new resonance. Eight years after its release, as Europe struggles to cope with the ongoing migration crisis - and as media and politicians seek to dehumanise the most vulnerable of people - District 9 is more relevant than ever.
The alien mothership hangs over Johannesburg
The first ten minutes of District 9 establishes many of the film's themes with a striking use of the ‘mockumentary’ style. This approach is itself a mixture of several different visual forms: corporate video, interviews with experts, news clips, vox pops with Johannesburg residents, and ‘found footage’ of the first forays into the alien ship. This collage of reportage styles establishes the ‘alternative history’ of the film, where aliens have arrived and been living amongst us since the 1980s. It also creates an authoritative representation of these galactic asylum-seekers as a burden and as a danger to the humans - a portrayal that the rest of the film's narrative subverts.
Creating a concentration camp: Wikus and colleagues do the admin.
We open the film with a bumbling piece-to-camera by the protagonist, Wikus, where the dialogue and mise-en-scene establish both character and one of the film's points. First, that Wikus is an unlikely hero, more akin to a character from The Office than a sci-fi action star. He cheerfully says his department seek to "engage" with the aliens, yet he also refers to them using the derogatory term 'prawn'. Secondly, the pedestrian office location behind Wikus suggests a corporatised approach to the handling of complex social issues. The responsibility for dealing with the alien population has been outsourced to MNU, a private company, and their approach is very business-like. MNU is setting up what will effectively be a concentration camp, but this is being engineered in bland offices by admin staff. The forced relocation of the aliens feels more like a corporate process than a ‘humanitarian’ endeavor. What will be catastrophic for over a million (alien) individuals and families, for the MNU employees is ‘just a job’, a series of numbers that need crunching.
Expert pieces-to-camera lend authority to the depiction of the aliens in the film's opening.
The film then cuts to a spectacular long-shot of the alien mothership hovering over Johannesburg; the music is a mixture of African chanting and action-movie percussion, establishing the genre but also suggesting this unusual location will provide something unexpected. The cinematography used as the humans enter the ship is in the style of ‘found footage’, which adds a sense of realism. The imagery is familiar from the Alien franchise and its imitators: flashlights stabbing through the dark, hazmat-suited explorers; alien symbols, coated with slime.
First contact with the 'prawns'.
The surprise is what they discover. The creatures in the ship are neither the gracefully terrifying predators of Aliens nor the hyper-evolved beings of Arrival or Close Encounters. They are, as the expert voiceovers says, “weakened... malnourished... aimless...” This is language we have also heard used to describe refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia. Their ship, like the flimsy inflatables used by refugees to cross the Mediterranean, is barely able to carry them to their destination.
Alien asylum-seekers at the overcrowded refugee camp.
The footage cuts to hundreds of temporary shelters. Here, the mise-en-scene is reminiscent of refugee ‘reception centres’ in Greece or Italy, or of the ‘Jungle’ camp at Calais (which, like District 9, was demolished due to public and political pressure). Just like these real world refugee camps, the settlements in District 9 appear overcrowded and chaotic. Smoke drifts past barbed wire fences patrolled by armed guards, while the (galactic) refugees queue for food or wander around apparently aimlessly.
Providing “status and protection” for the aliens is a priority, according to the brief testimony of an aid worker. Yet this is juxtaposed with a human civilian, voicing concerns that are familiar from the Brexit campaign and other right-wing rhetoric: “They are spending so much money keeping them here that could spent on other things.” Escalating tensions are illustrated by news footage of arrests and riots, video that could easily be sampled from similar events at the Hungarian or Macedonian borders.
Over next few minutes, as we see MNU prepare for the relocation, the dialogue and voiceovers contrast with the visuals. The MNU CEO and Wikus talk about a “complex and delicate operation” yet we are shown footage of wracks of assault rifles, loaded onto helicopter gunships by private soldiers in riot gear. ‘Delicacy’ does not appear to be a priority with the people actually conducting the evictions.
The new location for the camp is proposed by Wikus (quoting his company line) as a “safer alternative” where “the prawn can be comfortable and happy.” To which he then adds: “Far away from the people of Johannesburg.”
“They should go! Just go somewhere else!” states one enraged human. There is a British acronym that epitomises this kind of casual prejudice: NIMBY - ‘Not In My Back Yard’ i.e. I don’t necessarily wish these beings any harm, I just don’t want them anywhere near me, thank you. Further interviewees talk about the ‘prawns’ as parasites, ‘bottom feeders’ or criminals, as the camera shows them hacking at meat or scrabbling through piles of rubbish.
District 9: an angry human with foraging 'prawn' in the background.
The overall aim of District 9, unlike many 'alien invasion' films, is to 'humanise' even the most grotesque-appearing ‘other’. At around the 20 minute mark, the camera and editing style changes dramatically. The reportage aesthetic swaps abruptly to that of narrative drama. The focus is now on an alien called Christopher and his son. These ‘prawns’ seem very different to the pathetic or barbaric monsters we have seen previously. Christopher is a scientist, and though his first scene involves him rifling through a rubbish dump, he is seeking chemicals to create a ‘fluid’, a mysterious fuel that will enable them to leave Earth. He’s also a loving father, trying to provide a future for his son.
District 9: 'prawns' have families, too.
Christopher’s side of the story (and later Wikus’, when their paths converge) is shot and edited using close-ups, POV, shot-reverse-shot and other empathetic techniques. The incomprehensible alien language is now given subtitles. Even though we cannot read the emotional reactions on his alien face, these techniques immediately evoke empathy. As the story progresses, the filming style alternates between the more empathetic use of camera and editing, and news or other footage offered by MNU - the logo in the corner of the screen ideologically brands their biased (and at times plainly untrue) version of events.
Point-of-view and shot reverse-shot is used to create empathy with the alien characters.
Bloomkamp’s original concept was to create sci-fi allegory for the segregation and relocation of black South Africans during apartheid. Between 1960 and 1983 over 3.5 million non-whites were forced to leave their homes and to move into segregated neighbourhoods, where poverty and crime were rife. One of the most famous was the ‘resettlement’ of 60,000 black Africans from the Sophiatown area of Johannesburg (where much of District 9 was shot). In the early hours of Feb 9th 1955, heavily armed police began forcibly evicting people, bulldozing their homes and moving their belongings 19km away to what would later become the township of Soweto. 'Whites Only' signs became a familiar sight in the wealthier, exclusive areas. Parallels with the events in District 9 are obvious.
Anti-alien signage that echoes the 'Whites Only' signs of apartheid.
Yet for a contemporary viewer, the situations in District 9 have a different kind of relevance. As revealed by the alien Christopher’s story, the aliens do not want to be here .They don’t want to be a burden on society; they don’t want to turn to crime in order to survive or to turn violent when threatened. They would like dignity, a safe future for their children, and ultimately - like many real-world refugees from Syria or other conflict zones - they want to return home. Whilst the majority of the film shows this through the struggles of the aliens, the first ten minutes is really about ‘us’, the privileged and powerful, and how our opinions are manipulated. The refugees in this part of the narrative are literally dehumanised, reduced to a pathetic, repulsive and utterly alien other. Their customs are unknowable, their language incomprehensible, their lives squalid. Who knows what they are hiding? Who knows what they are capable of? The most vulnerable are suddenly presented as a threat, a danger that must be tackled.
The alien refugees presented as a barbaric, unknowable other.
By almost parodying reportage, the aesthetic of District 9’s opening ten minutes forces us to question the way refugees and migrants are presented in our own news media. It critiques how these portrayals are presented as fact by using a range of documentary techniques. Furthermore, it looks at how news media of this kind distorts our opinions, eliciting personal, public and political responses that dismiss the ‘human’ element of a massive humanitarian crisis. In doing so, it achieves a relevance way beyond Blomkamp’s original intentions, and prompts us into both greater awareness of contemporary events, and how we form opinions about them.
Aerial shot District 9's eponymous slum (above) and similar shot of Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, 2015.