The True Story Behind the Movie District 9
Many viewers will be surprised to know that the 2009 sci-fi hit District 9 is actually based on real events. The movie is a mock documentary following the relocation process of a group of aliens who have been stranded in Johannasburg, South Africa, and are living in a refugee camp. The inspiration for the film came from tensions between native South Africans and Zimbabwean refugees, explored in director Neill Blomkamp's short film Alive in Joburg, as well as the actual relocation of over 60,000 residents of District 6 in Cape Town in the 1970s.
District 9 opened in 2009 to critical acclaim. Produced by Peter Jackson, directed by Neill Blomkamp and starring Sharlto Copely, District 9 was nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year at the 2010 Academy Awards. Additional accolades included Oscar nominations for screenplay, editing, and visual effects.
Alive in Joburg
In 2005, Blomkamp directed a six-minute short film called Alive in Joburg, featuring the aliens seen in the longer version, and Sharlto Copley, the main character. While filmed with the same guerrilla documentary style as District 9, the Joburg aliens are assimilated into the community instead of restricted to the refugee camp, creating friction between the visitors and the native population.
While some of the scenes in Alive in Joburg are scripted and played out by actors, Blomkamp also juxtaposes footage of real interviews with Johannasburg residents. Interviewees were asked on their feelings about the Zimbabwean refugees living in their communities. In the film, the interviewees appear to be referring to the aliens with a large degree of prejudice and fear.
Blomkamp revealed in an interview after the release of District 9 that his initial inspiration for the idea of aliens living in South Africa came from the interviews on Zimbabwean refugees.
The major difference between the short and the full-length movie is the enforced segregation of the aliens in the later version. In the full version, the aliens are confined to a refugee camp in the middle of Johannasburg from the time of their arrival to the planet. Eventually, the government comes up with a plan to relocate the aliens to a more "suitable" location well away from the city center.
This plot twist was actually inspired by real events that took place in Cape Town, South Africa. District 6, a predominantly colored area with a minority white population located near the docks, had been a thriving residential community since the 1800's. In 1966, the apartheid government declared it a whites-only zone. Between 1968 and 1982 over 60,000 residents were forcibly relocated to the Cape Flats area, considered the "dumping ground" for undesirables.
Government officials then declared District 6 a slum, unfit for habitation. All of the buildings were destroyed, to pave the way for new whites-only infrastructure.
Filming of District 9
District 9 was filmed on location in the Chiawelo neighborhood of Johannasburg. Chiawelo was undergoing a forced relocation at the time of filming, with the residents being moved to government-subsidized housing. Most of the homes had been recently vacated by the time film crews showed up, but some tenants remained. Over the course of filming these residents were slowly moved to their new location. By the conclusion of filming the film crews were the only people in the deserted community. The shacks depicted in the movie are all actual residences of the poverty-stricken residents of Johannasburg.
Unfortunately, the scenarios depicted in Alive in Joburg and District 9 are ones that happen in low-income communities and refugee camps across the globe. Not unlike similar groups of humans, the aliens, or prawns, were placed in a slum without access to basic necessities such as food, medical care, and clean drinking water.
Treated as inhuman criminals and
pariahs, the behavior of the prawns eventually came to reflect their treatment
as they were forced to fight over any scrap available. This served
only to reinforce the public prejudice against the prawns in a bitter and unceasing cycle of poverty and violence. Blomkamp's true triumph in this movie is that with all the trappings of a sci-fi action flick, he still manages to retain a hard-hitting social commentary that is invaluable to considerations of our increasingly global society.