How real is District 9?

The movie portrays modern post-apartheid South Africa – and some very ugly habits of thought that remain in South African society, even 15 years after apartheid.

This still released by Sony Pictures shows, left to right, Sharlto Copley, Mandla Gaduka and Kenneth Nkosi in "District 9."

JOHANNESBURG – An American teenager walks out of the theater after seeing District 9, and is likely to consider it a rather rocking piece of science fiction.

But a South African walking out of the theater – District 9 opened in South African theaters three weeks after it debuted at No. 1 at the US box office – has a different reaction. Aliens arriving by the millions, crowded into a soul-crushing slum, then violently removed to another spot, far from town, to prevent crime. Eish, that isn’t science fiction, bru, that’s the 10 o’clock news.

This is what makes District 9 so interesting. Its special effects (and, my goodness, the violence) definitely secure it a place in the science-fiction category. But District 9 is really a piece of social commentary. It portrays modern post-apartheid South Africa, with all the modern trappings of normal suburban life for a select few, living side-by-side with a Mad Max world of poverty, inhabited by teeming millions of poorer folk, immigrants, and yes, extraterrestrial aliens who look rather like prawns.

The manner in which South African society treats these newcomers – in this movie, yes, but something also echoed in horrific xenophobic riots in May 2008 that killed more than 100 – shows that the much vaunted “Rainbow Nation” is still very much an ideal.

There are still very ugly habits of thought that remain in South African society, even 15 years after apartheid. The black majority may now have power, and the white technocrat minority seems to have found a place for itself, but both groups have teamed up to wield their power against a new enemy: immigrants.

The plot of District 9 follows a rather nerdy bureaucrat named Wikus Van der Merwe, who has been given the task of going door to door with armed guards in a slum called District 9, where the extraterrestrial prawns are scratching out an existence that Charles Dickens couldn’t have imagined. Wikus – who is followed by a camera crew, in faux documentary style – remains the quintessential South African law-enforcement agent, determined that every alien he meets must sign a paper agreeing to move out of their shacks to another encampment far off.

It is in these scenes – and in Wikus’s contacts with the violent Nigerian gangs that control the markets in District 9 – that District 9 rises above a simple shoot-em-up into social commentary.

When Wikus shows off his professional bureaucratic finesse in front of the camera, asking an alien to sign a document – with his tentacle-like hand – he’s showing that South Africa is a civilized country with rules. But when Wikus chatters, between raids, about the filthy habits of the aliens and their strange appetites for cat food, we see the racism that South Africans – black and white alike – have for Africans from other countries.

The plot twist comes when Wikus begins to transform into an alien himself.

Filmmaker Neill Bloomkamp has told reporters that the parallels between his movie and the real-life xenophobic violence that occurred in Johannesburg, Soweto, Durban, and Cape Town were merely incidental. But surely the occurrence of this violence against foreigners, or aliens, just as the film was being shot in Soweto, must have sent many filmmaker hairs a-tingling.

As a reporter who covered those xenophobic riots – where slum-dwellers literally burned their foreign neighbors with flaming tires – and as an American, and who sheltered a few visiting foreign friends in my own house, this film hit a little too close to home.

So while the bloodshed was at times a bit much, the real unsettling horror of District 9 is how closely it parallels South African society – and pockets of American society as well.

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