Post-apartheid at the movies

Here is an extract from a Mail Guardian Online article that discusses three films with a South African setting – District 9, Invictus and Skin.

Poor aliens. They trek halfway across the galaxy, run out of petrol and end up living off cat food in, of all places, 1980s Johannesburg. Then they get the kind of reception that asylum seekers who don’t speak the language have come to expect.

This is the improbable premise of the surprise sci-fi hit of the year. District 9 shot to the top of the United States box office in its opening weekend and earned the kind of reviews that eluded George Lucas — even the first time around. Its modest credentials include a 29-year-old debutant director, a budget of just $30-million and a cast of unknowns.

But District 9 also boasts two points of instant recognition. Its producer is Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings films and King Kong. Its setting is apartheid-style South Africa, a time and place that seems both close and yet distant, a paradox that filmmakers are now finding irresistible. Improbably, the traumas suffered as a result of South Africa’s white-minority rule have now become one of cinema’s most fertile territories.

The warped society apartheid created will be examined in a rugby film about Nelson Mandela, the story of photographers capturing township violence and the startling real-life account of a black girl born to white parents. As a result, Hollywood stars — including Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Clint Eastwood, Ryan Phillippe, John Malkovich and Sophie Okonedo — have been crowding the arrivals halls at South Africa’s airports. The gold rush comes 15 years after Africa’s most powerful nation held its first democratic election and on the eve of the biggest sporting event in its history.

Of all the new releases, District 9 wears its politics most lightly, making no mention of apartheid or its legacy in today’s impoverished black townships. But the allegorical overtones are inescapable in the plot about aliens who, their spaceship stranded above Johannesburg, have to endure a daily routine of unemployment, gangsterism and xenophobia in a squalid shantytown. The Prawns — as they are known in derogatory slang because of their vaguely crustacean appearance — spend their hopeless days brawling and getting high on pet food.

District 9’s director, Neill Blomkamp, lives in Canada, but was born and grew up in Johannesburg. “In my opinion the film doesn’t exist without Jo’burg,” he told journalists last month. “It’s not like I had a story and then I was trying to pick a city. It’s totally the other way around. I actually think Johannesburg represents the future. What I think the world is going to become looks like Johannesburg.”

District 9 has been lauded for combining an allegory of apartheid with awesome special effects, but it is perhaps the real-life locations that will linger in the audience’s minds. Blomkamp admitted that this authenticity came at a price. He was terrified daily that his convoy of vehicles would be a target for carjackers as it travelled to work in Soweto.

One night the fears were realised when his driver had a 9mm gun put to his head and his car stolen. “The people are warm, but the environment is so caustic and unbelievably disgusting to be in. Every single thing is difficult. There’s broken glass everywhere, there’s rusted barbed wire everywhere, the level of pollution is insane. And then, in that environment, you’re trying to be creative as well. But, of course, that gave birth to the creativity, so it kind of goes both ways.”

District 9 is not the most alluring advert for South Africa as a place for filmmakers to ply their trade. But the reality is somewhat different. The country boasts superb locations, world-class studios and technical crews at relatively low costs. It has a compelling history that the rest of the world is starting to rediscover. As the teacher Irwin observes in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, there is no period so remote as the recent past.

Read the rest here.

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