An Anthropologist in District 9

Inexplicably, a UFO appears over one of Earth's remote cities. Hovering a few hundred meters above the terrified citizens, a government mission to board the craft is executed only to find the strange beings living in disease and desperation. A decision is made to save their lives and relocate the aliens to the city's outskirts. In that moment, what seemed to be a compassionate action develops into an outdoor prison reminiscent of the worst crimes of colonialism. Imprisoned, literally in the shanty town that is created for them and figuratively within a society that shuns them, the aliens are forced to accept a life of dependency where every action to better their conditions is treated as dangerous and subversive. Eventually, given no other choice, violent conflicts become inevitable. The city may be Johannesburg, South Africa, and the slum dwellers may look like a cross between a grasshopper and a lobster, but this is a story that has been played out in countless regions from the North American frontier, to Australia to Palestine and Johannesburg itself at various periods in human history. Colonialism knows no nationality and, as District 9 suggests, the desire for dignity and freedom are truly universal.

[Read on below the fold]

District 9 is an exciting, action-packed thriller but it would be missing the point to simply enjoy the spectacle without looking at what the filmmakers had intended to reveal. From my training as an anthropologist this story is eerily familiar. The history of European interaction with indigenous, or native, peoples is an ugly and bloody affair. As European explorers travelled the globe they encountered strange beings that, from their perspective, were neither animal nor man. To European eyes they lived in impoverished settings with simple huts made from animal skins and brush. They survived by foraging for berries or nuts and whatever animals they could hunt using their simple wood and stone implements. It was even questioned whether they had genuine intelligence or should be regarded as mere children.

All sorts of abuses were considered acceptable where it came to those who looked and behaved "alien" to the civilized white Christians. Upon first encountering the native peoples of Hispaniola Christopher Columbus acknowledged the generosity and kindness of the Taino people he encountered, but quickly recognized that "they would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." Not long afterwards they were forced into mines to search for gold where they died by the thousands. Those who refused were tortured or killed.

This was a common occurrence around the world and native peoples soon learned that resistance was the only option. The entire discipline known as anthropology was created in order to understand and manage these alien cultures as the West expanded around the globe. As the world-renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss noted forty years ago in the journal Current Anthropology:

It is the outcome of an historical process, which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered, their institutions and beliefs destroyed while they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence.

At first, as Europeans moved into the territory inhabited by these indigenous people, it was simple enough to merely push them further into the frontier. In later years policies would be implemented to force indigenous people into European control, such as removing indigenous children from their families in order to raise them in "civilized" schools in British Columbia and Australia, or encouraging the natives to enter the cash economy by killing off their game (the buffalo in North America) and taxing them for every child and dog (South Africa).

District 9 serves as a metaphor for this legacy of European colonialism and the location chosen for the film is no accident. The slum conditions depicted in the film are based on an actual shanty town known as District Six in Cape Town where 60,000 black residents were forcibly evicted by the apartheid government of South Africa. The story follows the efforts of a bumbling agent, Wikus van de Merwe (played brilliantly by Sharlto Copley), who is running an effort by Multinational United (MNU), a private military contractor, to relocate nearly two million aliens to a camp hundreds of kilometers outside the city limits.

Wikus, who gained the post due to nepotism, is the perfect dupe for such a colonial position. He embraces the xenophobia of his culture and views the aliens (derogatorily called "prawns") as being ignorant, lazy and needing to be treated like children. Wikus proudly touts his liberal intentions to the camera crew that follows him as he condescendingly bribes the aliens into signing eviction notices. When he encounters a resident of District 9 who refuses to participate in this sham Wikus threatens him by asking if he has a permit for his offspring and tells him that he'll remove the child to Protective Services unless he signs. His disregard for the aliens as sentient beings is made fully apparent when Wikus gleefully pulls the plug on alien gestation pods (and hands them out as souvenirs) before having the entire building torched as the sound of horrific squeals emanates from inside.

Strangely, Wikus actually believes that he's being of service to the aliens under his control. He's managed to convince himself, as European colonizers have done for centuries, that because the alien population behaves differently from us (whomever "us" may be) that they don't have the same emotional or intellectual lives that we do. They're inferior and can be placed into a separate category, as animals undeserving of dignity or as things to be disposed of when convenient. However, because Wikus has convinced himself that his actions are noble (even though the task he's been assigned is not) his conscience can remain clear.

It is this attitude of noble intentions that has a long history in Western engagement with indigenous people. An excellent case study is that by Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro writing nearly fifty years ago in the journal International Labour Review (reproduced in Bodley, 1987). Since the early 1900s, Brazil's Indian Protection Service sought to pacify what Ribeiro described as "hostile Indians" who would not submit to living on reservations. Known as the Kayapo, but whom the white colonists referred to as "wild beasts" who were "only fit for reduction by bullets," the government agents of the IPS needed to convince the indigenous people that they meant no ill will.

The first task of a pacification team, therefore, is to convince the Indians that it is made up of people very different from all the white men they have met before. . . Any abuse of confidence at this time is extremely dangerous, because most of the Indians are still terrified of all white people, whom they have learned to regard as bloodthirsty and treacherous.

IPS agents maintained a policy never to attack the Kayapo, even in self defense, but to prove their lack of hostility by risking death before resorting to violence. This, they hoped, would prove their good intentions and encourage the Kayapo to trust the colonizers. Why this policy ultimately failed to gain their trust was answered by Ribeiro in his own report:

Thanks to its efforts, huge regions of this country, including some which now play a leading part in national farm, ranch and mining output, were peacefully occupied by the Brazilian community; and the people who had lived in those regions were settled in special "Indian Areas" on small sections of their former tribal land.

The ultimate purpose of the government program was to conquer the Kayapo with the least bloodshed possible and, despite the high ideals of the IPS anthropologists, the interests of the people in question was never considered, as Ribeiro came to understand:

Pacification brought about at the cost of many lives, of heroic effort to bring peace to further tribal groups, has been a source of frustration to its very authors: they have seen victory perverted into the defeat of their ideals, for the Indians have not even been assured possession of the land and peaceful co-existence has brought them hunger, disease and disappointment.

Following the example set by Brazil's Indian Protection Service, Wikus insists that the aliens not be harmed in the relocation process and, with the veneer of legality, he tasks the MNU agents to inform the residents of District 9 that they have 24 hours before they are to be evicted. Like so many imperialists before him, he is genuinely shocked when the aliens don't trust that the government has their best interests in mind.

I don't want to give away any plot points that might reduce your enjoyment of the film itself, but I will say that Wikus comes to learn a great deal about the colonialism he'd spent most of his life believing in. By using a clever plot device, writer/director Neill Blomkamp (a South Africa-born filmmaker working in Vancouver, BC) causes Wikus to personally confront his society's xenophobia and is presented with a difficult moral choice when everything he's believed in is exposed as a lie. I can only hope that by the end of the film audience members reflect on their own responsibility, and that of their country or culture, for the abuse inflicted on millions of people around the world both past and present.

While there have been many reviews of District 9, my personal favorite has been that by Adrienne Maree Brown writing for RaceWire and I would like to end with her summation:

if a massive alien ship full of living creatures was hovering over your city tomorrow, and if the creatures inside were stronger than you, and you couldn't understand them, how would you react? and to make it current - how do you react now to the changing population of your city, town, world? to the constant migration and flow of people, from causes both natural and man-made, which is a part of our human existence? how do you react to abuses of power by your own people, or nation? are you an active participant, or a taxpaying passive colonizer, torturer...are you polite, or afraid, or open?

this movie can be very much about today's world, and the horrors we are inflicting on each other at this moment. it can be about our choice, to turn away from domination and turn towards listening.

i will say it is much more enjoyable if you resist an easy watch, and compel yourself to think as much as you can the whole time.

[Note: The woodcut image above is by Theodore De Bry (1528-1598) and was based on the first-hand descriptions of Bartolome de Las Casas who accompanied conquistadors on their exploits.]


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Excellent review, mate! I loved the movie too and am still mulling over it after several weeks. Stays with you, this film, among the best in sci-fi.

"I don't remember seeing this part in the movie at all. Was it in the movie?"

Standard recent practice... lots of lines "from" movies... are only in the trailers. It's really annoying but it helps you figure out who actually watched the movie ;)

Actually, the film can easily be seen as a metaphor for current post-apartheid xenophobia, particularly the hostility towards Zimbabwean and other refugees, which resulted in an outbreak of horrific violence 18 months ago in SA. I was there when it happened and worked on the relief effort and the first few minutes of the film made chills go down my spine.

By Gregg Gonsalves (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

Blomkampf's short film that inspired District 9 actually uses personal interviews with real Johannesburg residents about how they feel about the aliens that have arrived. Except the interviewees were actually asked how they felt about Nigerians/Zimbabweans. I wonder if these some of these shots were re-used during D-9's opening sequence.

This is a great article brother. I felt the film was a critique of the events and conditions highlight, this is evident in the films satirical elements.

Excellent review, mate! I loved the movie too and am still mulling over it after several weeks. Stays with you, this film, among the best in sci-fi.

I just saw this movie and it was ok except for one thing. The shakicam cinematography made me want to throw up after a while. And there was really no excuse for it. They used the fake cinema verite style even when they weren't using the faux news cameras. All it did was make me feel ill, and I don't get carsick or seasick.

What an excellent article. It made me even more eager to watch this movie. I think sci-fi, especially which that deals with alien contact, is one of the most fertile genres in cinema regarding these kind of anthropological issues. This one, particularly, might be a very interesting venture into those problems.

By the way, Darcy Ribeiro´s citation is a especially painful one for any Brazillian who´s conscious about this kind of horror beneath our history. I live in São Paulo state, the most rich and developed, but one that has a unique history of violence against natives, with the explorations carried out by the bandeirantes. Nowadays, as it happens almost in the entire American continent, native populations´ vestiges are completely erased.

As an anthropologist, you must´ve read Mary Louise Pratt´s "Imperial Eyes". I think it´s one of the best at pointing out the ambiguous character of many europeans employed at imperialist programs in 18th century (and, also, how that ambiguity worked at erasing europeans´ guilt about the amerindian genocide, allowing them to portray themselves as harmless, helpful, good intentioned people).

I´m gonna link this article at my blog.

I have to say, first off, that I agree with all of the observations made in this review. I think that the filmmakers did a great job of using the 'prawns' as a surrogate for the 'other', so my complaint is only that of a real Science Fiction geek - I found the 'prawns' to be too human. For the purpose making the films point, it was essential that we recognize and empathize with the commonalities between humans and 'prawns' (affection for their children, bravery, and loyalty) but, in 'reality', if we really encounter actual aliens we may not have those commonalities. We felt that the 'prawns' were being very unfairly treated but would we have felt the same if, say, the 'prawn' children were treated by the adult 'prawns' as just another food source and the other areas where we made an emotional connection were absent?

Actually, the film can easily be seen as a metaphor for current post-apartheid xenophobia, particularly the hostility towards Zimbabwean and other refugees, which resulted in an outbreak of horrific violence 18 months ago in SA.

So far, the most depressing review of this film that I've heard was something like "It was good, but the aliens were like so ugly. Why did they have to be so ugly?"


I didn't read the review because I haven't seen the film yet and I'd like to go in somewhat fresh, but I look forward to reading it when I have.

The one thing that bugs me about the premise of this movie...If such a situation happened in real life, you wouldn't be able to throw a rock in district 9 without hitting two scientists. I don't care how long ago the aliens arrived, the place would be crawling with people investigating everything from their culture to their intestinal flora. And don't try to tell me that interest would die down after a mere few years or decades...there are plenty of people who devote their entire lives to studying obscure and (to everyone else) completely boring slime molds and snails and whatever. A real live alien species...well, that would be fascinating! I'd want to visit myself.

It looks like a movie that I'll have to see, though I think Adam has a point.

I also thought that Eric's comment about the attitude of many humans in the film to the aliens that they are
"ignorant, lazy and needing to be treated like children" seems unlikely given that the aliens arrived in a huge shiny space ship.

Perhaps I'm being too quick to judge the film, the plot may explain this apparently odd behavior.

Bringing attention to the violence against refugees from Zimbabwe would be no bad thing, that wave of violence received scant attention in the UK media, and to be honest I'd have hardly been aware of it had it not been for the Treatment Action Campaign's reports and rallies in defence of the refugees.

I agree with what you say about it being a metaphor for apartheid South Africa and the oppression of indigenous populations, but I didn't like it. Some parts were interesting, but for me, a sci-fi fan and a person with knowledge of these atrocities, it didn't work.

By Frank King (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink