There was a time when it was felt that every American film made was really about Vietnam. Such was the scar on the national psyche, there was a time of shock and denial when it couldn’t be broached as a subject; then it became clear that even many of the films that weren’t about Vietnam were, in fact, about Vietnam. The same has happened in recent years regarding the Iraq war.
Imagine, then, the choices facing South African film makers. At what point do you stop making films about the traumas, struggles and issues of prejudiced and apartheid? Opinion within the country is divided – some say move on. There are other issues to talk about. Other say we must, as with the Holocaust, constantly find new ways to tell the story to new generations. We must never forget.
Along comes District 9, a South African film produced by Peter Jackson, telling the story of an alien ship stalled over Johannesburg, from where the derogatorily nicknamed ‘prawns’ (aliens) are taken and housed in shanty towns, and then, years later, forcibly relocated. They are not welcome in town, there are aliens rights groups, there’s misunderstanding and misinformation. In one especially brave touch, the alien language is comprised of clicks – one character even tells an alien to ‘slow down with the clicks’, eerily reminiscent of how some respond to the Xhosa language. This is a film about it’s country’s history and prejudice – but (and here’s the film’s ambiguity, which may feel suspicious) what’s not clear is exactly what’s being said about this history.
It’s important to say this is a really good, intelligent and well put-together film. It’s exciting, the special-effects on a budget work well, the characters are engaging and there’s a nice line of dark humour. I especially like the fact we don’t get explanations for everything – why’s the spaceship there in the first place, not least. It’s put together in the hand-held camera traditions of Cloverfield, using a documentary device; and that device works in a nice, unforced way. Like all good science fiction it does have concerns for issues wider than the story – not just South African history, but issues of immigration, gun-running and identity. The problem the film has, though, it uses those issues, it doesn’t do anything with them. It doesn’t say anything other than use them as a backdrop – which is at best careless or at the (highly unlikely) very worst, in danger of its own encouragement of prejudice. Given the inflammatory nature of these issues, that’s more than a little careless.
I’d like to think the inevitable sequel will go deeper, but I can’t see it. This is still one of the better films of the year, but it could have been even more.