Thursday, February 25, 2010

Henriette Gunkel and Christiane König: ‘You are not welcome here’ -- post-apartheid negrophobia and real aliens in Blomkamp’s District 9

‘You are not welcome here’: post-apartheid negrophobia and real aliens in Blomkamp’s District 9
by Henriette Gunkel and Christiane König

When District 9 (D9) was released in August 2009, the film was an immediate box office hit in several countries. This was much to the surprise of critics, reviewers and bloggers, who seemed astonished by the fact that a science fiction film with this impact could originate from South Africa. Internet forum discussions and an E-Symposium emerged as a response to the film, which continues to be the subject of controversial discussion.[1] While many celebrate the film in relation to the ‘generic’ genre of Science Fiction as a promising representative of a thriving African Cinema, others reject the film on the basis of its socio-political message, as yet another racist movie about Africa – with reference to the depiction of both ‘the Nigerians’ and the aliens.[2] In this article, we would like to move beyond a crudely metaphorical reading of representation (‘the aliens stand for X in reality’), and explore the degree to which the film foregrounds its own mediality. This focus moves us beyond a polarizing position that immediately rejects the film as racist, and allows us to engage with a complex and original text unlike so many other films that take ‘Africa’ as their subject.

From its first image, D9 is hyper-reflective on its own status as a medium. As viewers, we are confronted with a flamboyant play of remediation, as sketched out by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin.[3] There, the two strategies of immediacy (a medium makes itself transparent on the referent: ‘looking through’) and hypermediacy (a medium reflects on itself by differentiating itself from another: ‘looking at’) struggle in manifold ways to constitute a complexity not only of the narrative and its semiotic significance but also the overall status of the depicted. In D9, documentaries from the 1980s are used to depict the arrival of the aliens in South Africa. TV-reports are added, which not only show the (militant) conflicts between the local population and the aliens but also the struggles of the aliens with the local police over the following years. In interwoven faux documentaries ‘experts’ express their opinion concerning all social and political issues that the film raises within its course, culminating in a fictitious TV-report with a well-known news anchor man from the SABC network. Visual and aesthetic strategies from Hollywood movies, surveillance cameras and computer games complement and complicate this overloaded genre play.

This form of hypermediacy not only references surveillance societies and 24-hours news cycles but characterizes the film from its beginning as hybrid. As a hybrid the film systematically denies the viewer easy access to the authenticity of what is portrayed. By doing so the film unsettles dichotomies such as ‘us’ and ‘them’ as well as understandings of difference and identity. This needs to be understood as a strategy of subversion but more importantly as the productivity of the film itself. The reality that the film pretends to represent is in fact only produced through the film. In this way it becomes clear that the authenticity or putative origin of any identity (and therefore of any social reality depicted in the film) did not exist beforehand but is rather the effect of its positioning through media. Accordingly, it is important to look closely at the media strategies that are initiated through the film at particular moments and examine their purpose to either authenticate referents or to display their constructedness. We will return to these strategies throughout this article.

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