Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Friday, January 15, 2010

Social-Urban-Anthropological Issues In District 9

In January 2010, I watched the Science Fiction movie District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp. The plot summaries I’ve found are pretty similar, focused on the extraterrestrial comics side of the movie, not emphasizing the social human –and not human-, anthropological, urban issues, that could happen anywhere, anytime.

Kenneth Chisholm writes: “In 1982, a massive star ship bearing a bedraggled alien population, nicknamed "The Prawns," appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty-eight years later, the initial welcome by the human population has faded. The refugee camp where the aliens were located has deteriorated into a militarized ghetto called District 9, where they are confined and exploited in squalor. In 2010, the munitions corporation, Multi-National United, is contracted to forcibly evict the population with operative Wikus van der Merwe in charge. In this operation, Wikus is exposed to a strange alien chemical and must rely on the help of his only two new 'Prawn' friends”.

The following synopsis is from rotten tomatoes: 
It's been 28 years since the aliens made first contact, but there was never any attack from the skies, nor any profound technological revelation capable of advancing our society. Instead, the aliens were treated as refugees. They were the last of their kind, and in order to accommodate them, the government of South Africa set up a makeshift home in District 9 as politicians and world leaders debated how to handle the situation. As the humans begin to grow wary of the unwelcome intruders, a private company called Multi-National United (MNU) is assigned the task of controlling the aliens. But MNU is less interested in the aliens' welfare than attempting to understand how their weaponry works. Should they manage to make that breakthrough, they will receive tremendous profits to fund their research. Unfortunately, the highly advanced weaponry requires alien DNA in order to be activated. When MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is exposed to biotechnology that causes his DNA to mutate, the tensions between the aliens and the humans intensifies. Wikus is the key to unlocking the alien's technology, and he quickly becomes the most wanted man on the planet. Ostracized and isolated, Wikus retreats to District 9 in a desperate bid to shake his dogged pursuers.

Lance Winslow, writes in a more professional tone, an appreciation of the slum, overpopulation and relocation of the aliens “One interesting thing about the movie is the aliens are put into a slum like area, reminiscent of the Kibera Slum in Nairobi Kenya. There is trash everywhere, raw sewage pits, and the aliens are treated as bad or worse than the most despicable examples of humanity, in the worst urban slums in the world. When the movie starts out there are 1.2 million aliens stuck in a slum. The movie takes place in Johannesburg South Africa, and the locals in the nearby city want the slum to be removed, and all of the aliens taken to a giant tent city, similar to the ones that are made by the UN, after a major Mother Nature natural disaster. Of course to move all the aliens, they must first evict them, and get them to sign a piece of paper. Interestingly enough, the aliens have no idea what they are signing or why, not to mention that groups meet them at the door with machine guns. In many ways, the movie speaks to humanity's inability to deal with the slum problems, and by the end of the movie there are 2.6 million aliens, which need to be moved, so, in essence District 9 is actually more of an allegory of many of the major problems in the world, as much as it is an alien science-fiction flick. (Lance Winslow. What the Movie "District 9" Says About the World's Urban Slums.

The eviction of the prawns. From 

Wikus struggling to save his arm (his life) from cannibalism. From

From I’ve learnt that the story was adapted from “Alive in Joburg”, a 2005 short film also directed by Blomkamp. The title and premise of District 9 were inspired by events that took place in District Six, Cape Town during the apartheid.
For those who like action-science fiction movies, I’d ask to pay special attention to the anthropological- social themes brought up here (among others):

.- The massive arrival of refugees to a foreign country, in desperate conditions.
.- The immediate attention that has to be provided, food and housing.
.- The overpopulation in a few years with the consequence of a growing slum in very bad conditions.
.- The problem of identity and race; discrimination.
.- The segregated people become segregators.
.- The feelings of xenophobia (Terror of the unknown)
.- The abortion (who has the right to dictate it?)
.- Genetic manipulation
.- A revival of old practices, a revival of cannibalism to acquire the enemy’s power.
.- Expropriation, evictions by force. (Imagine the analogy, Spanish conquerors reading in the old Castilian the Indians’ rights….)
.- Loss of rights (It doesn’t matter, human, no human).
.- Language, communication, understanding between races.
.- Symbolism of social rank and “identity” by food. Prawns love “cat food”, like animals, and trash.

Slum. From

By the way, “prawns” means king crickets up to three inches long (7.5 cm.) that could develop into a plague. “it has enough body mass to shake off most household insecticides--the first shot just makes it more jumpy. Worst of all, when threatened, it empties its bowels of a noxious black effluvium that disgusts predators and people alike”. (From The black effluvium is shown in the movie as vomit. The analogy between plague-refugees-prawns is almost literal.
Though the movie was acclaimed, “the Nigerian government was deeply offended by the film. Information Minister Dora Akunyili asked movie theatres around the country to either ban the film or edit out specific references to the country, because of the film's negative depiction of the Nigerian characters as criminals and cannibals. Letters of complaint were sent to the producer and distributor of the film demanding an apology”. From

Three definitions of cannibalism ( are: the eating of human flesh by another human being; the ceremonial eating of human flesh or parts of the human body for magical or religious purposes, as to acquire the power or skill of a person recently killed; the eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of its own kind.

If we strictly follow the definitions, we cannot say that Nigerians were practicing cannibalism, as they ate flesh of non humans. What is confusing is that prawns were, at first, treated as another “race”, and then, they were considered animals, species. When Wikus is under a genetic process that will convert him into a prawn, Nigerians do not see him as human any more. It is a delicate matter and I can understand Mrs. Akunyili’s concern, not many people would see these subtleties and there will be an immediate mental connection between the terms “Nigerians-cannibals”.
I liked the movie, I’d certainly watch a second part. It also reminded me Isaac Asimov’s social stories, though based on robots, discrimination, battles, riots, identity, urbanism, are subjects always present in Asimov’s novels.
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