Aliens and Apartheid.

Alyssa Rosenberg on District 9, the new sci-fi film that uses space aliens kept in an isolated zone in South Africa as a metaphor for apartheid:

The movie is set in South Africa, and the trailers have featured folks with a variety of local accents, and the details of the plot we know so far, that a group of aliens have been set up in a restricted zone for 30 years, sets up a very clear parallel with the township and pass sytem used to restrict the movements of black Africans under apartheid. And the more I’ve thought about it, I think an alien-human confrontation might be a useful metaphor for apartheid. It’s one I’m slightly uncomfortable with, because it relies on an assumption that the people being imprisoned and the people imprisoning them actually are fundamentally different, which supports an underlying assumption that supported apartheid. But District 9 appears to be in part a movie about what happens to people who perpetrate an oppressive system, and what happens to people who are isolated entirely from the civilization that’s chosen to imprison them. Maybe using aliens to represent justifiable a violent resistance makes us more comfortable with Umkhonto we Sizwe–or at least about talking about the fact that violent resistance to apartheid may have been necessary, even as anger against apartheid helped spur resistors to forms of violence that seem horrifying and unjustifiable, like necklacing. The attitudes of the apartheid regime are reprehensible–this was a government that did biological weapons research for use incontrolling internal dissent–but it still seems worthwhile to learn how those attitudes developed, accreted, and became morally debilitating. The trailers for District 9 so far seem to suggest that the aliens just want to leave peacefully, though they are shown in violent confrontation with humans.

10 thoughts on “Aliens and Apartheid.

  1. ladyfresh July 11, 2009 at 10:22 am Reply

    i recommend watching the short film that it’s based on

    Alive in Joburg

    i’m really(really really really) interested in seeing this film

    • G.D. July 11, 2009 at 11:14 am Reply

      I hadn’t heard about it in until a week ago. I’ll def check out the short film. thanks.

  2. Winslowalrob July 11, 2009 at 8:40 pm Reply

    Yay District 9! Movie looks badass.

    Still, the info about this has been out for a while, so I guess Rosenberg must have just watched Bruno or something and wrote this piece, but for being a professed south african history nut, I was not impressed. Big biopics are hard to make regardless, but christ how does ANYONE choose Winnie Mandela? Does Rosenberg not know that she was a gangster, or the ridiculous amount of enemies she made? I mean, how is that not even mentioned? And how come there is no mention of the Pan-African Congress, which was way more popular in south africa but could never get the pr of the ANC? i dunno, i don’t know much about SA history, but it sounds like rosenberg is giving an official anc account of everything with some of biko’s skepticism thrown in. i dunno, i am just being salty, but i expect more from people who claim to know a lot. If you want to see how much this film can help in examining apartheid, i would not read what she writes. I would check out this dude though

    • G.D. July 11, 2009 at 9:21 pm Reply

      Those all sound like reasons for a Winnie biopic to me, unless you’re suggesting that biopics need to be hagiography.

      • Winslowalrob July 11, 2009 at 10:06 pm Reply

        dude, a winnie mandela biopic would be suh-weet, but i got the impression that rosenberg did not know about winnie’s more colorful history, shall we say, which is part of my concern.

        here is a very even-handed bio on her (i have some more aggressive stuff but i do not want to sound too shrill :)):

        • Alyssa Rosenberg July 12, 2009 at 9:40 am Reply

          Yup, totally know about the many awful things Winnie Mandela’s done, which is why I said I thought she’d be an interesting subject. I much prefer bad people to good ones, at least as far as movies go. And you’re right, I should have mentioned the Pan-African Congress. But I was mostly writing about the parts of South African history I think could have produced compelling movie scripts. A lot of what I’m interested in about in the region is the role of trade unions, for example, but I’m not actually going to suggest a mass-market film about COSATU. 🙂

          • Winslowalrob July 12, 2009 at 11:54 am Reply

            You are talking to a person who thinks that Mostert’s ‘Frontiers’ (aka the fattest book I have ever read) should be made into a movie, so what do I know about stories? But we all know a compelling SA movie would involve a nice white dude, redemption, and some Graceland thrown in. Everything outside of that is just filler.

            I dunno about doing ‘history’ movies in general (nobody is ever happy about them, and they basically rely on anochronism, but whatev). SA in particular is a loony-ass world unto itself that would only be understood by foreigners (and by foreigners I mean Americans) when put within a framework of black/white relations and apartheid, and the thing I love about District 9 is that it does not necessarily have to be seen as a meditation on either subject. I mean, its not like I expected you to give a detailed account of history, but considering that the lay reader would have no real idea who winnie mandela is or any knowledge of south african political parties (now THAT would be a script i can get behind, just a look at the evolution of the parties after sharpseville), they probably would benefit from some more background. I mean, you explained how there is more to Nelson and the ANC than pacifism, so a lil’ more on the other things you find compelling would probably be helpful. I mean, I would sign up John Woo to do a Winnie Biopic where her and her bodyguards just walk everywhere in slow motion and doves fly out whenever they talk. And then throw in a nice white dude, redemption, and Graceland just for good measure.

            Nice talking to you by the way.

            • Alyssa Rosenberg July 12, 2009 at 9:39 pm Reply

              Totally fair, and I agree-it is REALLY hard to do historical movies that actually explicate events and people that have become calcified myths. It’s one of the reasons I liked Public Enemies so much. It hews relatively close to Bryan Burrough’s book, getting at both the deep core incompetency of the early FBI and providing nice personality sketches of some of the gangsters involved without flooding the viewers in what feels like a history lesson. The movie’s long, but it motors, literally and figuratively.

              I agree it’s even harder to do a movie about a place where the myths aren’t even calcified–they’re not yet nascent. But is it worse to fail or to give up entirely. Having just come from what I found to be a hugely depression Bruno screening, I can understand the impulse not to trust American audiences much. But I’d hate to conclude that we should just not make movies about African history because it would be hard (not that I think that’s really what you’re saying) and American audiences just would never get it. I just hope someone can do better than to make a movie about the Rugby World Cup.

  3. Lindiwe July 13, 2009 at 8:41 am Reply

    The apartheid metaphor wasn’t the first thing that came to my mind. I immediately thought of he recent Xenophobic violence. The comments made by the several South Africans sounded a lot like what we were hearing before and during the attacks… in addition to that the parallel between the foreigners being crammed into churches and community halls seeking safe refuge and this ‘District 6’ … I guess I’d have to watch the film to get the full apartheid metaphor.
    Either way,it looks pretty interesting. I live in a bubble so thanks for the heads up!

  4. Lindiwe July 13, 2009 at 9:49 pm Reply

    Oops. Hows that for an appropriate slip? District ‘9’.

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