For years we have seen movies about Africa that are, for the most part, negative-full of war and disease. District 9 is different: it’s a love story.
It was written by South African, Neill Blomkamp, who then casts his mate as the Afrikaaner bureaucrat, Wickus Van De Merwe. It’s a love story and I loved it right back. I loved the film because it was refreshing and different-Peter Jackson produced it-and I am glad this film replaced Halo. In the states, mostly, the movie was understood as a political metaphor awkwardly dressed as a sci-fi thriller. It is time Americans showed a little more understanding of South Africa.
In a review of District 9, the writers for a New York City online magazine worried about the metaphor of segregation set in such a segregated place like South Africa.
To get back to the desert of the real, though, did you get the uneasy feeling, as I did, that setting a sci-fi film about a systematically marginalized population in a city and country that really are terrifyingly segregated and fraught with inequality somehow does injustice to the seriousness of the actual situation in South Africa?
WTF?? Did these reviewers say the same thing about every movie set in NYC, LA or DC that has to do with segregation, (Mississippi Burning) corruption, (Training Day) and the evils of not recycling? (The Day after Tomorrow) Where is the introspection? New Yorkers are so parochial.
Americans think South Africa is bad and bad things happen there and continue to happen there. An African friend once told me that he thought white South Africans seemed uncomfortable in Africa. I think about that sometimes. I think about it because I frequently feel very uncomfortable in Africa. I think about it because at the bottom of it all, Americans today have a singular, historical relationship with sub-Saharan Africa.
Obama’s visit to Ghana and the slave dungeons really illustrates this. The choice of Ghana was symbolic for Africans and Americans. Americans today have an equally simplistic understanding of South Africa and it has to do only with apartheid. Can I possibly appreciate what it means to be South African?
South Africa has the largest economy on the continent. Many Afrikaaners voted for the changes in government that put an end to apartheid. Americans, limited by their inability to insist on good global news coverage, know very little about the complexities of the political scene in South Africa. They know only enough. I am not sure Hillary’s recent visit to SA provided much more info.
The news reports after her visit did seem to indicate that she got on well with President Zuma-a vast change from the previous administrations divided by Mugabe and Iraq. The focus of their talks focused on making progress on reform in Zimbabwe (tee hee) and the hot topics in Africa, according to America,-Sudan, Somalia and trade. Ok, well we can all guess how much progress will be made in all of those areas but at least we both have new administrations and they are talking to each other. It is not a huge step toward understanding but I have come to appreciate baby steps towards progress. We all start life that way-unless you are alien then, as Wickus showed us, you start out in an entirely different way!
After I saw District 9, I thought about all the things SA and the US have in common. We both have very violent cultures. The English are not violent like us. They are hooligans but this is sporadic, often childish, drunken, violence. There is a high tolerance for everyday violence in the US-well at least in most urban areas, particularly LA. I guess one could/should say it’s bad. It is a reality and it is cultural.
One lecture I heard during the recent Law and Society meeting was by Professor Jonathan Klaaren (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg), who spoke about xenophobia in South Africa. Specifically his paper looked at violence against the Zimbabwe refugees. His conclusion was that part of the South African national identity, post-apartheid, was the preservation of a kind of purity of nationality that lent itself to xenophobia. I was so impressed to hear a thoughtful considered explanation for violence that also did not excuse it in any way. It gave me a little more insight into SA and its complicated relations with its neighbours. All very fascinating as I sit only a few hours from the Mexican border.
District 9 was really entertaining (and violent!!). All of this is simplistic, I agree. But this film is new and it is a change. Film is a powerful medium and this one was a major commercial success. That, at least, has some meaning. It is a beginning in a baby step kind of way. For me, I think Joburg is a formidable city-one to respect and maybe, love.