District 6 in District 9: The Metaphoric Menagerie

Gone

Buried

Covered by the dust of defeat—

Or so the conquerors believed

But there is nothing that can

Be hidden from the mind.

Nothing that memory cannot

Reach or touch or call back.

-Don Mattera, 19871

Prefatory Note

This article was originally written solely based on the viewing of the 2005 short film by Neill Blomkamp entitled Alive in Joburg (the short film on which District 9 is largely based), the trailer to District 9, and the viral marketing campaign that Sony Pictures was conducting through three main websites: D-9, MNU, and MNU Spreads Lies. Since the writing of this, District 9 has played in theaters worldwide, and although I feel I was largely spot-on with my conjecture of what would unfold in the full-length feature, there remains one aspect which I could not have predicted: Blomkamp’s and Jackson’s treatment of Nigerians. Speaking to a colleague from Cape Town recently, he explained that Nigerians, to many South Africans, are the scapegoats for many of the social or political woes in their country, particularly in Cape Town. The xenophobic attacks and my personal experiences of hearing and seeing the treatment of Nigerians in Cape Town only seem to corroborate this sentiment.

Nevertheless, I would argue this does not change the questions raised in this essay: What work2 does the treatment of Nigerians do and for whom? What political or social agendas does such treatment tap into, and is it appropriate in any way, shape or form to depict and use Nigerians in this way? The treatment of Nigerians, given the overall usage of race and metaphor in Alive in Joburg and District 9, is—unfortunately—not surprising, and only adds credence to my belief states that the film and the creative choices of the director and producer deserve critical and thorough interrogation. 

Illustration by Sarah D. Schulman

A red sun silhouettes rows of shacks, a black woman in mismatched clothes with an African accent tells of missing people and increased security while pictures of United Nations-like tanks are shown and an unknown white woman in a business suit says, “The government noticed that they were moving into new areas. That’s when things started to get out of hand.” A panning shot of township shacks rolls past in the background. This is the opening sequence of the new film District 9, produced by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) with Sony Pictures and directed by Neill Blomkamp (a white South African director). District 9 is based largely on Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg (2005)3 which takes place in 1990s apartheid South Africa. The metaphor prevalent within Blomkamp’s short and District 9 is clear to those even slightly familiar with South African history: aliens are representative of the blacks and colored people who experienced forced removals and segregation from whites under the auspices of the Group Areas Acts of the apartheid regime. The metaphor is so clear, in fact, that one wonders whether Blomkamp is referencing perhaps one of the most famous forcible removals of over 60,000 people from District 6 in the Western Cape to the dusty Cape Flats some 25 kilometers away. But then again, how clear is this metaphor and how would people unfamiliar with South African history read movies such as Alive in Joburg or District 9? While it is sometimes effective to use metaphor in opening a dialogue about race, does such metaphor, as is used in Blomkamp’s work, actually do more to solidify pre-conceived notions of immigrants, non-whites and Africa?

District 6: A Little Bit of History

Beginning in the late 1940s and 1950s, amidst a newly burgeoning, vibrant, and multi-racial cultural center in District 6, Cape Town, stories began to emerge about the propensities of the District’s inhabitants toward lewdness, violence, filth, and sexual promiscuity. The depiction of District 6 as a den of vice was powerfully promulgated and enforced by the National Party. Group Areas legislation began to take effect in the late 1950s—as a result, about 150,000 people were forcibly removed from unplanned residential areas in the city’s center. The main purpose of the 1950s Group Areas Act was to assign separate racial groups to different residential and business sections of the city. “An affect of the law was to exclude non-whites from living in the most developed areas, which were restricted to whites.”4 Indeed, apartheid, in Afrikaans, means “separateness.”

In 1957, Sophiatown near Johannesburg was razed to the ground to make way for a whites-only area called “Triumph” or Triomf in Afrikaans.5 In 1965, over 60,000 people were taken from their homes in western Cape Town and relocated 25 kilometers away to the desert plains of the Cape Flats. These forced separations ripped societal networks and community centers apart and forced thousands to travel long distances to work in the newly-declared “whites-only” areas. All buildings (save religiously-affiliated ones) were either razed or bulldozed at a huge cost to the government as well as (obviously) to the people being removed.

Racism was outright and adopted by the apartheid government in ways very similar to the Jim Crow era of the United States. “Reference books”6for blacks over the age of 16 were introduced in Cape Town in 1955, while police were allowed to stop black people at anytime to demand to see their papers. It was an era characterized by a minority-dominant, white Nationalist Party that ruled out of anxiety at even the slightest hint of an uprising and out of fear of a majority revolt. Sabotage Acts were passed in 1962, enabling government officials to impose house arrest in whichever way they felt most effective. Assemblies of non-whites were severely limited and immigration by Africans to Cape Town was severely deterred and curtailed by demolishing the shantytowns that cropped up around Cape Town and Johannesburg.

In July 1976, as a result of the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools, widespread violence in Soweto, Johannesburg erupted. The carnage morphed into a three-day uprising, sparking a movement that would eventually help in leading South Africa out of apartheid.

Once the premise of the Nationalist Party is understood to be one based largely on fear and characterized by a minority maintaining political control over a far vaster majority, the apartheid government’s actions and impositions of violence become clear. But what of this history? How do events of the 1950s, Sixties and Seventies relate to the seemingly disparate creation of Alive in Joburg and District 9 by a white South African director? What is the relationship and what work do such movies do in light of such a relationship?

Six Captivating Minutes

Alive in Joburgopens on a township road, a car is overturned, alien spacecraft hover overhead (à la Independence Day) and a white police officer is to the right of the camera. It quickly cuts to an alien encased in a “really fantastic bio-suit,” and then to a balding white man (authority figure) who speaks of the apartheid government’s mounting fears as aliens move into new areas. Set in 1990s apartheid South Africa, Alive,a short film (slightly over six minutes) directed by Neill Blomkamp and shot in a handheld, documentary style (see Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield), mixes live action with computer-generated imagery, set in a 1990s apartheid South Africa. Multi-National United (MNU–a clear metaphor for the apartheid government) is immediately cast as the antagonist that violently reacts to the movements of the alien population: “And this is when the government started to get tough. This is when things started to get out of hand.” A pair of suited officers begin shooting at the alien, an alien standing amidst a deserted township setting seemingly doing no harm whatsoever. The alien reacts, understandably, with violence, by throwing cars at the shooting policemen. About a minute and a half into the film something very interesting happens: a black screen with “Southern Africa: 1990” appears and we are again shown the balding white man who says, “They were captive labor… They were living in conditions that really were… not good.”

The metaphor for blacks and coloreds living under the apartheid regime as majority populations, if not yet clear, becomes overwhelmingly apparent. (After all, using space aliens to represent “aliens”—immigrants—should be clear enough). Alive returns to the present to describe the appalling conditions of the aliens–“this place doesn’t want us” (subtitles make sense of their foreign language). And let’s face it—they are ugly. With protruding tendrils surrounding their mouths, the shantytown dwellers huddle around an oil-barrel fire dressed eerily like many of the characters in Tsotsi, the 2005 film about the Joburg township misfit that finds redemption through parenting the child of one of his carjacking victims.

In perhaps one of the most intriguing turns of Alive, the camera cuts from the aliens to a black man explaining that, “They [the aliens] make people uncomfortable… we don’t know how they think… they’re going to make us unsafe.” He is speaking English and yet subtitles are used. In fact, throughout the entire film, the only time that subtitles are used are for non-whites and aliens–even though the Afrikaans accent used by many of the white actors is arguably just as difficult to make sense of. This poses an interesting question: what does it mean for this black man (and later, others) to speak against his metaphorical self?

From the concerned, black township resident, the film cuts to Constable Bongai Zulu, a black policeman (whose clipped English is also subtitled); we see him and another white policeman gunning down the aliens without any particular reasoning made clear to the viewer. The camera cuts once again to the balding white man who explains that because of the Afrikaans minority, the apartheid government overly reacted to any perceived threat. The premise (and the metaphor) is fully established three minutes into the film.

From that point until the end, Blomkamp merely reinforces his allegorical storyline with testimonials from black shopkeepers, drivers and white policemen. Aliens with blurred out faces (to protect their identity) demand electricity and running water (common reasons for protest in apartheid South Africa), are stopped in their cars, pulled out and beaten, and in a blatant reference to non-whites under the apartheid regime, are admonished for running cables into pre-existing sources of electricity and water and “stealing” the valuable resources. The film ends on a less-than-promising note as a group of township residents march against the aliens and Joburg is seen in flames. The last telling scene, before cutting to the credits, is of an older black woman with a purple beret lifting her fist in the black power salute as an angry mob of blacks runs past her.

Viral Aliens

Similar metaphorical strains to those found in Alive in Joburg abound in the trailer of District 9. A black screen with the words “They are not welcome” is followed by testimonials by a white Afrikaans woman (“They don’t belong here”) and a young black girl (“They’re spending so much money to keep them here when they could be spending it on other things. At least they’re keeping them separate from us”). Two black screens follow: “They are not accepted,” and with a rising musical score in the background, “They are not human.” The black screen abruptly opens up to a shot of the alien spacecraft hovering above the township shacks, military helicopters avidly circling. The picture is crisp, but the feeling of the handheld documentary is slightly lost and there are no subtitles for black characters or aliens. This seemingly less, racially problematic take on Blomkamp’s short ends with someone off-screen pleading, “I just want everyone that is watching right now to learn from what has happened.” What are we to learn? From whom? The trailer itself alludes to nothing deeper, but the viral marketing campaign that took place was extensive. There were three main websites connected to the film–elaborate to say the least: District 9 (D-9), Multinational United, and MNU Spreads Lies.7

The main thrust of the D-9 site is to offer humans the chance to “live long, prosperous lives” and “deal with non-humans.” It offers an interactive satellite image of the physical location of District 9, a community watch program, continuous news feeds, and revealing behavioral recommendation pop-ups for interacting with non-humans such as: Drawing pictures and using simple sign language can be an effective way of communicating with non-humans;” “Non-humans must be treated with respect. Actions deemed abusive will be dealt with by the MNU or animal safety branch [emphasis added ];” “Please refrain from using non-human drinking fountains to prevent the spread of disease;” “Refrain from the manufacturing and distribution of items that may glorify non-human culture;” and my personal favorite, “Speaking clearly and loudly to a non-human will help it learn English more quickly.”

What work do these “behavioral recommendations” do in light of the fact that Blomkamp seems very intent on metaphorically equating non-whites under the apartheid regime with “aliens”? Are they blatant forms of racism or allowable metaphoric prodding? Who is it prodding and for whom are such “recommendations” working? Do they truly and effectively draw our attention to the injustices enacted on non-whites under apartheid, or do they operate within the already demarcated freeways of racism active within ourselves and our society, acting to merely reinforce preconceived notions of race?

The D-9 site also offers visitors the chance to click on “MNU News Update” dots which alert humans to nefarious, non-human deeds and gives them the chance to join the “MNU Community Watch” program which e-mails participants “news and updates concerning Multi-National United (MNU) including, without limitation, information about human and non-human job opportunities at MNU, the community watch program, and District 9.” Visitors can also download various badges (i.e. MNU support materials) to don the mark of the oppressive MNU in safeguarding their “communities.” From the website an extensive list of rules and regulations can be downloaded (nine pages long) which outline anything from surveillance rules to hygienic conduct (Act 3, Section 1.2 under sexual relations states that, “sexual relationships between humans and non-humans are prohibited”). This is only the “human” section of the site. Sony Pictures went to great lengths to create an entirely separate section of the site for “aliens.” Non-human visitors must click the alien button to enter this section, under which is written the following: “Look for blue sound icons to hear text translated in English. Spoken English is required for inter-species assimilation.”

Upon entering the alien section, one notices something strange immediately: the entire MNU news-feed, rules, regulations and behavior recommendations are in the “alien” language–one curiously similar to Chinese characters. Consulting a friend fluent in written Mandarin as well as Cantonese, he was perplexed to find that, in fact, the characters were Chinese characters, albeit elongated and slightly bastardized. As the behavior recommendations pop up on the bottom left hand corner of the screen, the visitor not fluent in “alien” must click on the audio button to have the foreign language read aloud in English. The behavior recommendations are potent: “Always speak in soft tones when speaking with humans to avoid confrontation;” “Always speak English in public. Spoken English is required for interspecies assimilation;” “Please keep creative expression private. Art, photography, and other crafts found in public will be destroyed;” “Non-human chants and music must only be performed indoors and only within the confines of District 9;” and “Always offer your seat to a standing human on a public bus or train.” The hyperbolic, performative aspect of the D-9 site plays in realistic ways to the realities of the living conditions of blacks in apartheid South Africa, but what work does such performativity8 do and for whom?

Another major undertaking for Sony Pictures was the creation of the Multi-National United’s (MNU) website. Any visitor to the site is immediately assailed by a video with a woman speaking to MNU’s commitment to “bringing humankind the benefit of tomorrow’s technology today,” and immediately thereafter is hit with an MNU promotional video, reminiscent of an oil company’s multimedia attempt to make a harmful, anti-environmental corporation seem like a green, earth-friendly enterprise. Of particular interest on this site are the so-called “Guidelines for a Peaceful Coexistence,” i.e., guidelines that regulate human and non-human coexistence. A few statements stand out: “The responsibility for coexisting starts at home. Staying inside of your designated residential region will help keep order intact. Territorial integrity helps individuals feel safe, secure, and empowered;” as well as, “When encountering unfamiliar scenarios, it’s normal to react with aggression instead of reason.” The gist of the entire site is to avoid conflict and to inform humans that, if put in precarious positions, they should take heed and call on the paternal protector, the MNU, which exists to, “maintain a human and non-human population that keeps the great spirit alive.” What spirit Sony Pictures is referring to exactly is never explained. Glaring differences of MNU’s treatment of the non-humans becomes apparent when reviewing its list of available jobs. Humans, for example, are offered jobs with substantial salaries and skill-levels (i.e. dental hygienist, translator, customer relations representative) while non-humans are offered jobs in fields like “Non-Human Dorm Janitor,” “Non-Human Waste Disposal,” or a “Non-Human School Teacher” (teaching non-humans), all of which are assigned low, hourly pay rates.

The third installment in Sony Pictures’ viral marketing campaign is the MNU Spreads Lies site which mimics a web blog maintained by “George” (an “alien”) and entirely written in the alien language (with the option to translate into English). The site’s banner reads, “MNU Spreads Lies” and, “Everyone Deserves Equality” in “alien” and English and also has a drawing of a human and alien hand locked in friendship. The blog’s archives, which reach as far back as September 2007, include comments by fake visitors, YouTube videos of fictitious anti-MNU protests (strangely taking place in the United States) and links to phony competitors to the MNU (i.e. Tanukashi9). Outing the MNU’s corrupt practices, George comes off as an uninformed conspiracy theorist: “Ok, now it gets even worse. I overheard some guards talking yesterday at work. Did you know that MNU has strong ties to both the United States government not to mention the South African government?”

Throughout his blog posts, George attempts to show the similarities between humans and aliens, at one point meticulously going through a typical day, hour-by-hour, and listing his activities to draw comparisons—commentators respond with, “BORING;” “Darn it! Get back to the exciting stories of abuse and salacious tales of corporate malfeasance;” and, “Uh, so this entry is supposed to make me want to campaign for alien rights or something? Forget about it. Go home!” On the right hand side of the screen, visitors are given the option to download wallpapers, posters, and icons in support of “non-human equality and rights” as well as the option of signing a petition for non-human rights. The opening sentence of the petition’s purpose (“It is our belief that all intelligent beings, both human and non-human, have basic rights to liberty and decency”) are reminiscent of civil rights proclamations in 1960s America or under apartheid South Africa. As of September 9, 2009, 13,879 people signed this fictitious petition. If interested in receiving further updates through the “non-human newsletter,” a visitor can submit their email address, date of birth, as well as their species (human or non-human) and gender.

The experience of the District 9 promotional campaign is voluminous, elaborate, and extremely comprehensive. After a few hours of perusing the online material, fiction and fact become blended and one begins to wonder, what is the point?

Implications and Questions

As Don Mattera’s poem from 1987 (featured at the beginning of this essay) states, there is nothing, “that memory cannot / reach or touch or call back.” History has a strong tendency to resurface in the present, operating in and through the now and indicating what may come of the future. The creation of Alive in Joburg, the recent release of District 9, and the clear parallels to the Group Areas Act legislation of apartheid South Africa raises many challenging questions: what does it mean to have a white South African director revisit the hardships of the Group Areas Acts through metaphoric science fiction films? What does it mean to use aliens as a metaphor for the exiled and oppressed blacks and colored populations of apartheid South Africa (arguably in continuance today)? As we sit and watch Alive in Joburg, what does it mean that the director has chosen to subtitle the dialogue of blacks and aliens while the words of the whites are not visualized? Blomkamp is drawing a direct parallel between alien and black, but why? Importantly, if I am uneducated in anything “African,” let alone South African, and District 9 is to be my first interaction with the people and idea of a place called South Africa, what image does this create and solidify in my mind about the country or more broadly, Africa?

The largest market for this movie will most likely be in the United States. If a populace ignorant of African affairs (as Americans are wont to be) sees this film, what work does that do? Does it draw links between aliens and Africans, cause people to view South Africa as a land of hostile township battles, and reify once again the notion that Africa is an exotic, violent, and adventurous place? What would happen if Blomkamp had no aliens in his film but instead told the same story of the apartheid era using only people? Would anyone watch and, if not, why?

Hollywood has now grabbed hold of two major South African narratives, both of which take place in shantytowns and both of which re-appropriate the pain of others for profit. In Tsotsi, a township misfit finds his long-awaited redemption through caring for the child of his female carjacking victim. In District 9, we see aliens encroaching on townships creating anxiety and conflict and effecting violent state responses. In light of the very troubling xenophobic murders occurring now against immigrants to South Africa (Zimbabweans and Nigerians in particular), what will this film do if its aliens are linked in South African minds (and elsewhere globally) to immigrants? What happens if we read Alive in Joburg and District 9 as anti-immigrant films? What does it mean that those involved in the production of the District 9’sviral marketing campaign have taken the Chinese language, bastardized it, and used it as an “alien language”? What does it mean to have black Africans in District 9 exclaiming their hatred of the “aliens” (their metaphorical selves)?

The performative segregation of human and non-human is thorough in the viral marketing websites, particularly in the D-9 site. In such sites, two seemingly conflictual narratives occur. Within one, “humans” (presumably of any color) are lumped together and pitted against non-humans. Within the other, Blomkamp metaphorically refers to the apartheid regime’s hostile and oppressive tactics of control through Multi-National United and their treatment of the unwanted, discarded and oppressed “aliens.” How can both of these narratives operate simultaneously? Race is strategically bottled in the bodies of aliens, thus allowing whites and blacks alike to come together harmoniously in the face of the encroaching and bothersome alien population. But there is a third narrative being bandied about in George’s blog: that of equality for the human and non-human. Taken together, what does all of this infer? In schizoid fashion, one narrative tells of human harmony in the face of an alien population, another speaks to the metaphor of “aliens” as oppressed non-whites under the apartheid regime through countless references to historical acts of segregation, and lastly, we are told that humans and non-humans should live in harmonious coexistence.

Illustration by Sarah D. Schulman

These are difficult questions to answer if one is truly interested in exploring the complexities of how people think, how people’s vision is formed and re-formed by the visual input they receive, how images and sounds are filtered through the pre-existing memories and experiences we as humans have, and how power operates as to who gets to decide what and how images are presented to large numbers of people. They are questions to be posed to viewers of the film, perhaps in a survey style or interview setting, answers which would need to be formulated into another presentation altogether. District 9 is not simply a science fiction film to be watched for entertainment purposes—there are more insidious and complex narratives being told worthy of interrogation.   

Filmmakers and producers may not care about philosophically debating the proper uses of metaphor in movements towards profit, but this does not lessen the necessity to do so. Every creation is laden with choice, and the responsibility to not only accept, but explore, the effects of such creation(s) is a vital aspect of the creative process. Profit does not warrant naiveté, particularly if the creative project emanates from a person enmeshed in a historical and present power structure which favors their race, gender or sexuality.

Speaking of the historical and power, “Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.”10 Lacking authoritative uniformity (arguably due to its very nature as a creative figure of speech), metaphor must be interrogated for the manners with which it is employed, for whom it is exercised upon, and for what ramifications such usage(s) may invoke. To catechize the creative process is to advance the resulting product and reinvigorate the power of properly used (and questioned) metaphor.

 

November 5, 2009

frontispiece and illustrations by Sarah D. Schulman

[Letters: by Alison Désir; for a different take on District 9, see Corinne Goldenberg's blog]

1. Don Mattera. Untitled poem on the home page of the District Six Museum: http://www.districtsix.co.za/.

2. While it is difficult for one to pin-point the exact meaning of “work,” this quote from Ann Laura Stoler's Race and the Education of Desire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997) comes close. On page 200 of the epilogue:“It is for us to work out how these discourses are historically layered, what new planes of earlier discourses are exposed in new political contexts, how discursive and non-discursive practices on a global terrain reconfigure the truth-claims that relate individual bodies to the social body and thus how this recuperative process has transformed the socio-economics and the sexual politics of race.”

3. Available for viewing online at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1185812222812358837#

4. Resources for District 6 section: South Africa.info: http://www.southafrica.info/about/history/districtsix.htm; Joseph Lelyveld. “Article 4 – No Title, ‘When God Threw the Dice…’”New York Times (May 15, 1966); Donald McNeil Jr. “Cape Town Journal; In the Sad Wasteland, a Storehouse of Memories,” NYT (July 15, 1999); John D. Battersby. “Musical Re-Creates a Razed Cape Town Slum,” NYT (February 20, 1988); Dispatch. “Roots Covered in Dust,” Dispatch Online (November 5, 1999); BBC News. “Righting an Apartheid Wrong,” BBC News Online (November 27, 2000).

5. Much of the historical information within this section was gathered from: http://www.districtsix.co.za/.

6. In 1952 a 96-page document, called a reference book, came into being. “The identification book had a fingerprint of the holder. The book had to be carried at all times, from doctors to academics and laborers. Failure to produce the document on demand to a policeman was a punishable offence. Black Africans had no right to appeal to courts if they were removed from an urban area. Police and authorities had the right to raid any dwelling inhabited by blacks in search of “illegal” black residents.” (http://www.rebirth.co.za/apartheid_and_immorality2.htm).

7. Respectively, http://www.d-9.com; http://www.multinationalunited.com/; http://www.mnuspreadslies.com/.

8. See Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993): 187. “For discourse to materialize a set of effects, “discourse” itself must be understood as complex and convergent chains in which “effects” are vectors of power. In this sense, what is constituted in discourse is not fixed in or by discourse, but becomes the condition and occasion for further action. This does not mean that any action is possible on the basis of a discursive effect. On the contrary, certain reiterative chains of discursive production are barely legible as reiterations, for the effects they have materialized are those without which no bearing in discourse can be taken.”

9. Tanukashi is rumored to be taking over the “non-human” security services from the MNU. (http://www.mnuspreadslies.com/post.php?id=211).

10. Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995): xix.

J. K. Fowler is an adjunct professor in the sociology and anthropology department at Rutgers University Newark, the founding and managing editor of the nomadic sojourns creative collective based in Oakland, CA and Brooklyn, NY, a full-time editor, and a doctoral candidate at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.