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Sci-Fi in South Africa

South Africa was introduced to the sci-fi film world in Neill Blomkamp’s films 'Chappie' and 'District 9.'

By Stephen HamiltonPublished 8 years ago 5 min read

The typical African narrative has been one of tragedy, one of political unrest, or one of a number of situations that create emotional dramas. So, when Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi District 9 brought concepts from a genre that was often limited to New York and Los Angeles to African landscapes, it was perhaps not surprising that it was met with critical acclaim.

Add in District 9’s excellent story and innovative filming techniques, and the film became one of the dark horses for the Best Picture Oscar race. But beyond being a talented filmmaker, Blomkamp’s current filmography, particularly that of District 9 and Chappie, highlight the ways in which the rich cultural atmosphere and history of South Africa lends itself to the genre of sci-fi. Specifically, Blomkamp’s films allow for social commentary on the politics and dynamics of South Africa while simultaneously exploring universal ideas about humanity.

Photo via Film Walrus

Blomkamp’s Short Film Origins

Though Blomkamp is mostly known for District 9, he shaped many of his sci-fi tricks on a budget in his earlier short films. In fact, his six-minute short entitled “Alive in Joberg” operates somewhat like a trailer for District 9. Using the same documentary-style opening from the film, the audience is introduced to a world of hostility toward newly arrived aliens with what appears to be the power to levitate extremely heavy objects.

Even in this short film, Blomkamp shows his sympathy for the alien’s harsh treatment. This is a direct parallel to the apartheid politics that plagued South Africa during much of Blomkamp's coming-of-age from, the 80s until the early 90s. Though the treatment of the aliens in “Alive in Joberg” isn’t that complex, Blomkamp got his chance to truly develop the story in District 9.

It is hard to miss the allegory for apartheid (and general discrimination against “others”) in District 9. When the film opens, it immediately calls upon the idea of a film based in reality through its documentary style. Specifically, it uses newsreels to show that the aliens, while treated benignly at first, have now become refugees that are being forced to live in specific areas riddled with crime and filth. Furthermore, there’s even a scene where main character Wikus is ordered to perform an abortion, and other parts of the military are ordered to shoot any alien unwilling to cooperate.

Photo via Gigamir

Apartheid in Sci-Fi

Unfortunately, this treatment is very close to what Blomkamp may have witnessed with Black South Africans. From the 1960s to the 1980s (Blomkamp was born in 1979), many Black South Africans were forced to relocate to their “designated group areas.” In fact, the placement of District 9 and Chappie in Johannesburg seems purposeful when you consider one of the largest removals in South Africa, in which 60,000 people were forced to live in Soweto during the 1950s.

The end of District 9 features yet another relocation after the main alien character Christopher and his son escape using the mothership. Though the end of the film does feature a violent conflict between the aliens, the army, and a criminal group, Wikus’ transformation and acceptance does imply that things get better when people let go of their preconceived views and “walk in other people’s shoes.” Or, in this case, walk in other people’s skin.

Nevertheless, apartheid was eventually abolished in South Africa in 1994 with the election of the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela as President. The problems, however, were definitely not over, with violence, poverty, and the institutional racism that came along with apartheid laws. In fact, the poverty and violence elements in particular are of note because they represent the economic exploitation that was enforced through apartheid. Under apartheid, Black South Africans were relocated into rural areas to support the need for cheap labor. Unfortunately, the newly elected government faced a host of problems, including debt that had been put on hold from the previous government. This led to a lot of unrest among workers which was then followed by violent protests.

Photo via LegendaryTrips

South African History Bleeds into Chappie

Poverty and violence thus became the backdrop for Blomkamp’s next film, Chappie. The film concerns itself much more with philosophical sci-fi content than political commentary, but the implications involving a robot who accepts the gangster life is impossible to miss.

The disconnect that some critics felt about the political narrative of Chappie is likely related to the fact that Blomkamp did not initially want to set the film in South Africa. He was more interested in simply addressing the bleakness of the world, represented by the neighborhood full of crime, and how that compared with Chappie’s pure and innocent nature:

“I have a weird mixture of a highly optimistic outlook mixed with an extremely pessimistic outlook; It’s a strange mixture. I think that humans are capable of both things and in my own correct or incorrect way of viewing humans it can be distilled down. I can come up with a reason biologically for why we are both things; We are this black and white, yin and yang thing that is responsible for the Holocaust and war and we’re also responsible for all of this other positive stuff. Life on earth for me is those two things."

Photo via Gabriel Diego Valdez

From District 9 to Chappie

Chappie, much like District 9, ends with a message that suggests the way to conquer violence over difference is to step into one’s shoes. In the case of Chappie, two characters are able to download their consciousness into the robots. But if you ever get to talk to Blomkamp, you should know that he resists the thought that his films have the ability to change the world. He believes that filmmakers make films for a reason, but the results of the film on society will be limited. “There’s a million better ways you could effectively change the planet than making a film. I have no misunderstandings about how limited I think films are. People work in the week and then want two hours off and they want an emotional journey or an emotional connection to something. People don’t come out of theaters and join political movements, it just doesn’t happen. I think that a slow burn with hundreds of films in a single topic can begin to push the needle in one direction.”

As for the future, Blomkamp is set to direct the next Alien film. Little is known about where the film will take place, but it is probably safe to say that there will be some influence of South Africa (and perhaps hip-hop) in it. Now that Blomkamp has made several films with similar styles and interests, it would be hard to not consider his name as a sci-fi great. Should he ever consider another genre, perhaps one day he will be able to count himself among the auteurs.

About the Creator

Stephen Hamilton

Definitive movie buff. Quickly realized that it was more financially prudent to write about film than trying to beg for millions of dollars to make his own.

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    Stephen HamiltonWritten by Stephen Hamilton

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