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Why ‘District 9’ is the new ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

Why ‘District 9’ is the new ‘Slumdog Millionaire’
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First Published: Sat, Sep 19 2009. 12 30 AM IST

True life: The film was shot in Chiawelo, a squatter camp in Soweto, Jo’burg
True life: The film was shot in Chiawelo, a squatter camp in Soweto, Jo’burg
Updated: Sat, Sep 19 2009. 12 29 PM IST
Have you seen District 9 ? You should. It’s the new face of moviemaking. Part real, part imagination, part brilliant, part exploitative—and fully global. Its South African director lives in Canada and found himself a big Hollywood producer, New Zealander Peter Jackson. The film was shot with relatively unknown actors in a real slum in a cut-throat (by Hollywood standards) budget of $30 million.
True life: The film was shot in Chiawelo, a squatter camp in Soweto, Jo’burg
In short, District 9 is this year’s Slumdog Millionaire.
The world of District 9 is no rosy Hollywood-style apocalyptic future starring Will Smith and his biceps. District 9’s Judgement Day isn’t set in New York or Chicago. District 9’s aliens haven’t graduated from the Spielberg school of sexy special effects. Surprise, surprise, the film doesn’t even star Christian Bale, the ultimate postmodern hero (c’mon, which other actor has played Bruce Wayne and John Connor?).
For those of you who haven’t seen it, 20 years ago a spaceship arrived over Johannesburg. The aliens within, some one million of them, are malnourished and humans extract them and confine them to District 9, a high-crime, fenced off slum in the city. No surprise that the aliens (who are derogatorily labelled prawns i.e. clueless, brainless husband’s-favourite-food-lookalikes with no rights or privileges) don’t blend in. Fast forward to the present and the citizens want these “dangerous” creatures evicted and moved further away from their world to District 10. All the aliens want is to go back home.
The movie, stunningly shot (it’s a stripped-down world the likes of which you’ve never seen before on the big screen) and edited, documents all the twists and turns of the eviction. The director uses several not so subliminal signals about South Africa and segregation to make his point. It helps that this is one of those rare history subjects mainstream audiences (and the Oscar jury) are familiar with.
The film was shot in Chiawelo, a squatter camp in Soweto. Yes the same Soweto that was born around 100 years ago when living in the city became out of bounds for black workers who powered the mines and other industries. It was ground zero of apartheid, that modern history shocker that still shapes the lives of today’s South Africans.
Many of the cardboard and metal shacks the aliens are shown living in are the actual houses of Chiawelo’s residents. Electricity finally came to Soweto about 10 years ago but it is yet to reach Chiawelo. Of course, Third Worlders such as you and me have seen this type of housing in our backyard.
Like Slumdog Millionaire, District 9’s failing is its complete lack of complexity and nuance. Johannesburg, according to the writer of this film, is mainly inhabited and run by Afrikaners. In fact, the city is a cauldron of African, Indian, European and Chinese people. Some Nigerians, angry about being depicted as mobsters and cannibals in the film, have already launched their own “District 9 Hates Nigerians” Facebook group, even as others concede that while District 9 does have some racial stereotypes, it encourages us to challenge them.
As 2010 approaches, the next-decade film-maker knows that the quickest route to fame and Oscar glory is via grimy Mumbai or crime-ridden Johannesburg (and in fact, the Oscar buzz began one week after the film’s release). The new film-maker will only expand his canvas in the years to come. And every time a global movie is made on the other side of the world, the cultural debate will be rekindled.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Sep 19 2009. 12 30 AM IST