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District 9 — science fiction as social satire

8 September 2009

I’ve just been to see District 9, probably the best and most ambitious South African film of the year, if not of the decade.

I thought generally it was pretty good, and I wonder how it was received by audiences outside South Africa, since it had fairly heavy dollops of South African culture, and many of the little in jokes might have been lost on audiences in other countries.

My wife came to see it too, and she is not normally a fan of science fiction films, but she liked this one.

The basic plot is that an alien spaceship is stranded over Johannesburg, and the alien displaced persons (nicknamed “prawns” by the locals) are allowed to settle in a shanty town just below their ship, where they live in squalor, and eat blackmarket cat food that they trade for with Nigerian gangsters in exchange for arms, including some of their own weaponry, which humans cannot use becuse it needs alien DNA to work. After 17 years of uneasy coexistence it is decided to resettle them further away from town, and the task of moving them is given to Multi-National United (MNU).

The social satire worked on various levels, some local, and some international. There were many themes from the old era of apartheid — the proposal to move the aliens has a whiff of the old apartheid-style ethnic cleansing, and the MNU operatives, and their privatised paramilitary forces, resemble both the police and bureaucrats of the apartheid era, and the “red ants” of more recent times (employees of real-life private companies who wear red overalls and are contracted to remove illegal squatters). MNU, however, as its name implies, has international ramifications. Some American bloggers misunderstood, and thought it represented the United Nations, but Americans should rather think Halliburton, Blackwater and Monsanto — the satire extends to them too.

The nickname “prawn” is not simply a reference to the edible sea creatures, but also to the Parktown prawn, a species of cricket that invaded Johannesburg about 20-30 years ago, much to the horror of northern suburbs housewives. The aliens in the film are much the same colour as the Parktown prawn, so the resemblance is more than coincidental. They also jump and exude black liquid like Parktown prawns. It was perhaps the Parktown prawn that attracted hadedas, a bird species that has become urbanised since about 1990, and which were formerly almost exclusively rural, but are now found in towns in large numbers, and probably help to control the Parktown prawns.

The satire is also against recent xenophobia in South Africa, which has sometimes erupted into violence in the form of pogroms against foreigners. Some foreigners are refugees, as the “prawns” in the film are, but some are, or have become, criminals, like the Nigerian gangsters portrayed in the film. The lifting of international sanctions against South Africa opened the door not only to legitimate businessmen, but to international criminal syndicates, who ran circles around the police, whose prime task in the apartheid era was not so much combating crime as combating opposition to the government and its apartheid policies. So there were Nigerian drug dealers, Bulgarian car thieves, Chinese perlemoen (abalone) poachers and many more. The film is evenhanded, satrising both xenophobia and forreign criminals.

Another instance of evenhanded satire is central to the plot of the film. The protagonist, Wikus van der Merwe, is an MNU operative given the task of overseeing the project of getting the aliens out of town. He comes across, quite authentically, as the apartheid-era petty bureaucrat who was often given the task of overseeing such removals in the past. He confiscates a mysterious liquid that some aliens are making in a secret lab under their shack, and when some spills on him it begins a process of metamorphosis, in which his DNA becomes compatible with that of the aliens, so that he can operate the alien weapons. This makes him a valuable property to MNU, who see huge profits in copyrighting his DNA (shades of Monsanto). It makes him an equally sought-after property for the Nigerian gangsters, for similar reasons, though their cultural expression differs — the gang leader believes that van der Merwe’s body can be used to make muti that will make him invincible. Both Western science and African traditional beliefs have been corrupted by greed, in similar ways. And in the apartheid era both were explored by shady companies set up by the government, with names like “Executive Outc omes” and “Civil Cooperation Bureau”. There was an attempt to pin responsibility for some such experiments on Wouter Basson, but they failed for lack of evidence. A novel I’ve just been reading, and reviewed on my other blog, deals with a similar theme: Notes from underground: Recent reading: Kennedy’s brain.

You don’t need to know all this background stuff in order to enjoy the film, but it’s worth remembering in case you are tempted (like some reviewers) to regard it simply as a B-grade sci-fi movie with a bigger than usual budget for special effects.

But some things are difficult to explain cross-culturally. One such moment comes when the protagonist, Wikus van der Merwe, operates a big robocop type weapon, and one of his (former) colleagues from the MNU recognises him at the controls and says, “It’s van der Merwe”. Van der Merwe is also a character in numerous jokes and funny stories, whose ignorance and ineptness sometimes get him into trouble, but he often escapes, partly by a kind of native cunning, partly by accident, and partly by a kind of disingenuous naivety.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 September 2009 7:07 am

    Interesting review! I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.

  2. 10 September 2009 1:14 pm

    Thanks for this review with insights into the social satire. I was also wondering if non-South Africans would ‘get’ what a lot of the movie is about.

    Kevin and I were surprised at how deeply disturbed we were by it and wondered if it was because it was very close to home, unlike a lot of other social satire movies which are usually based in the States.

    So much of the dialogue was painfully familiar; terms and phrases deeply embedded in Apartheid ideology which one has heard so often and sometimes still hears. For example, Wikus commenting on how ‘they’ have so many children, telling the alien to teach his child some ‘respect’, the way Wikus’ father disowned his son when it seemed he may have slept with aliens: “he’s dead to me”. All such dialogue can be found in South African literature and it brought together a lot of difficult and painful things for us to think through and make sense of about our society.

    • 10 September 2009 6:56 pm


      Yes, it was familiar, though I didn’t find it disturbing, because it was simply very true to life and was telling it like it is. At the point where Wikus was explaining why “they” have so many children, and how “they” were going to be moved he sounded just like Pieter Dirk Uys playing Piet Koornhof. It was slightly larger than life, but not much.

      Some Americans who reviewed it found the violence a bit disturbing — did the alien weapons have to be quite so messy, some of them asked. And to that I respond with two thoughts:

      1. It is satire, after all, and one of the things it satirises is the genre. And so to some extent it is over the top, and brings in all the cliches of the genre – especially the robocop-transformers suit. But it wasn’t quite as slapstick as some American examples, like Naked gun. Though that was satirising spy movies rather than science fiction, it also went over the top on the violence.

      2. And actually it’s not so over the top. Think of the American siege of Fallujah, and the bombing of Belgrade and Baghdad. Some of their weapons had far more drastic effects, which they try to tone down by calling it “collateral damage”. So it may seem over the top, but it tells it like it is. We human beings are a violent species. If we find it disturbing in the film, we should find it even more disturbing in real life.

  3. Lisa permalink
    13 December 2013 5:30 am

    Hi. I just came across this – Thank-you. It is the first time I had read someone writing about District 9. I came across it randomly while in the U.S. and happened to be with a couple of LGBT Human Rights activists but they did not understand it the way I (a South African freedom activist in Canada) did since they were unfamiliar with SA culture/history. We didn’t know anything about the movie when we saw it, I remember at the time being fascinated with the political nature of the movie and enjoyed it for that reason. btw – I was the only one who liked it. My friends felt it was very violent. I’m inspired to watch it again.

    Glad to have found your blog – I am looking forward to reading more. : )


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