The figures, the reviews & the backlash

District 9 made its budget back the weekend it was released. Since then it has garnered glowing reviews while retaining its hold on the box-office. Last week (28 August) it opened well in South Africa, though it�s no Schuster and now it�s about to land over Europe and Asia with an expected box-office boom. Despite its financial and critical success some have criticised the film, accusing it of racism and some local filmmakers have even accused it of not being South African. Andrew Worsdale looks at the figures, the reviews and the adverse reaction�

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District 9 made its budget back the weekend it was released.
District 9, Johannesburg�s first sci-fi flick, opened well in South Africa this past weekend, earning over R2.1million at the box-office off 80 screens. Some industry pundits have called the figures disappointing, comparing the gross to Leon Schuster�s Mr. Bones 2 which earned R6 million on its opening, Transformers 2 which earned over R8 million on 97 prints and Will Smith�s superhero flick Hancock, which garnered R7 million off 91 prints.

But the truth is that District 9 actually opened exceedingly well. The weekend of the 28th was a sports-heavy one with major soccer and rugby matches, plus the film has a 16-age restriction, which doesn�t apply to the other films. Helen Kuun, of Ster-Kinekor distribution, says that a closer comparison would be Terminator Salvation, which opened earlier this year also on 80 prints and earned just under R2 million, or even Cloverfield, a sci-fi epic which, like District 9, featured no stars or marquee status and earned R690 000 on its opening weekend off a tally of 40 prints.

She says: �South Africa is the first territory worldwide where District 9 is matching Terminator Salvation levels on its opening weekend. It was a massive sport weekend which always eats into attendances, but basically the film has opened with the same numbers of a Hollywood blockbuster, perhaps even better considering its age restriction and South Africans� love of rugby and soccer.�

There�s no doubt that there�s an appetite for the film - a week before its release, a bust at OR Tambo International uncovered over 60 000 pirated DVDs en route from Nigeria evidently to Zimbabwe with copies of the film, and days later another raid on Bruma flea market in Johannesburg�s north-eastern suburbs led to thousands of pirated DVDs including District 9 being seized.

The piracy is occurring worldwide with Swedish fileshare website �The Pirate Bay� unloading over 50 000 bootlegged files within 24 hours on 17 August, a few days after the film�s American release where it amazed industry insiders by grossing over R37 million on its opening weekend.

By end of this weekend, District 9 will easily have grossed over $130 million worldwide, making director Neill Blomkamp Hollywood�s hottest property and one of its most profitable directors ever. In less than six weeks his first movie will have recouped its budget more than four times over, never mind that it still has to open in Europe and Asia.

What�s more remarkable is the blanket praise the film has received. On review compilation site �Rotten Tomatoes� the film scored 89% positive reviews out of 190, the consensus being that the film is a technically brilliant and emotionally wrenching sci-fi classic. To see the raves and a few slates go to: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/district_9/.

The other site worth checking out is �Metacritic� which had a score of 81 signalling �universal acclaim�, the film is in fourth position as the best reviewed picture presently in release. To check out links to the reviews and a torrent of user comments go to: http://www.metacritic.com/film/titles/district9

South African critics were no different in their praise for the film with influential commentator Barry Ronge writing, �it is a true landmark in the history of South African film.� Virtually across the board, including newspapers like The Sowetan and City Press, the film was heaped with praise. The only slightly sour note came from Sibusiso Mkwanazi of The Citizen who thought the film performed poorly as a thriller concluding that �District 9 is rather like olives. You will either think it is the best thing ever or you will hate it and demand your money back.�

Despite the critical applause the film has sparked some debate and several critics, bloggers and opinion makers have expressed immense unease at what they think is extreme racism related to the film�s thematic echoes of apartheid and xenophobia. Google �District 9 racist� and you�ll see how this discussion about the movie is taking off, with good people finding themselves on opposite sides of the arguments.

Desson Thomson of prominent website �The Wrap� wrote: �What's ingenious about District 9 is the way it cannily appropriates symbols and clich�s of the apartheid regime of South Africa -- the snarling dogs, the barefoot kids, the depressing shanty houses, the dust, poverty and hopeless -- and repurposes them into a stunning sci-fi movie.�

But not everyone feels the same. Armond White of the New York Press spearheaded a campaign against the movie, angering fanboys, geeks and critics who had praised the film. He said, �District 9's South Africa-set story makes trash of that country's Apartheid history by constructing a ludicrous allegory�(it) suggests a meagre, insensitive imagination. It's a nonsensical political metaphor.� He went on to accuse it of having a �mangled anthropology� and of representing �the sloppiest and dopiest pop cinema.�

Virulent blogger DC Girl@The Movies joined in, targeting Blomkamp especially for his portrayal of a Nigerian gangster in the film, who lives in the segregated alien area preying on them by selling contraband. She objected to the portrayal of the black Africans in the film as �Ooga-booga negroes who think *eating* the aliens will somehow give them their ~*magic*~, gun-toting gangstas, hos, and yes, we even have a barely-there sidekick who is repeatedly called 'boy'.� To see the rant and more links to the debate go to:

Other commentators said the film possessed an Anglo-liberalism with its vague support of tolerance and its patronising, colonial racism, �Under the liberal viewpoint, Wikus is a racist because he's stupid and doesn't know better. Yet this same viewpoint engages in a more complex and fetishistic disavowal of racism. Instead of 'my culture is better than yours', reflexive racism argues 'your culture is different to mine'. This idea of 'tolerance' allows us to publicly believe that all cultures are equal, but still act as if ours was superior.� To take a peek at the rather pedantic debate you can go to: http://daveguzman.blogspot.com/2009/08/is-district-9-racist.html

Local critics did show some concern at the representation of black Africans especially the Nigerian �refugee gangsters� who traffic food and weapons with the aliens. Theresa Smith of The Star Tonight! wrote, �framing the entire question in a popcorn action format does trivialise the concept of setting up the Nigerians as psychopathic cannibals. We may come to realise that the intention is not to label an entire race as inhuman, but in the heat of the film it becomes a problematic stereotype.�

Science-fiction films have the benefit of setting and speculation to use allegory in order to make points about present day issues. In its day 1950s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers was embraced by both the right and the left as representing their point of view about Mc Carthy-ism and the �Communist Threat�. And that, like District 9, became a classic that seemed designed to be discussed and argued over.

There�s no doubt Blomkamp faced a challenge when writing the screenplay. How to make a sci-fi movie that dealt tangentially with issues like apartheid and xenophobia without making it a tub-thumping treatise? �I think for the first few months I was thinking of a film that took itself too seriously,� he says, �There was too much of me in it. I realised that the smartest thing to do, especially with my first film�is just make something that's accessible and more of a ride, that's more fun. I actually wrote �satire� on four pieces of paper and stuck them up on my wall to remind me that satire is the way to go with the film.�

�My upbringing in Johannesburg had a massive effect on me, and I started to realize that everything to do with segregation and apartheid, and now the new xenophobic stuff that's happening in the city, all of that dominates my mind, quite a lot of the time. Then there's the fact that science fiction is the other big part of my mind, and I started to realize that the two fit well together. There's no message, per se, that I'm trying to get across with the movie. It's rather that I want to present science fiction, and put it in the environment that affected me. In the process, maybe I highlight all the topics that interest me, but I'm not giving any answers.�

If you were writing a film set in Johannesburg and you needed a gangster element, I bet you�d think about Nigerians � unfortunately little Lagos in Hillbrow for example has become a no-go area. Salon.com tackled Blomkamp with the question: �Here's a white guy from South Africa making a movie with scary, murderous black African villains. What�s your reaction?� The director said he was fully aware that it would be open to criticism. �I know those buttons are going to be pushed. Unfortunately, that's the reality of it, and it doesn't matter how politically correct or politically incorrect you are. The bottom line is that there are huge Nigerian crime syndicates in Johannesburg. I wanted the film to feel real, to feel grounded, and I was going to incorporate as much of contemporary South Africa as I wanted to, and that's just how it is.�

Another issue came up on the web a week before its local release. Several prominent members of the industry claimed that the film was not South African, that the only South African thing about it was that Blomkamp was born here. Their point was that the financing came from overseas and that the final creative control lay in new Zealander Peter Jackson and distributor Sony�s hands.

Blomkamp told me at a recent Joburg press junket that if anything it was a commonwealth film: �The story�s South African as are 80% of the cast and crew, the spaceship�s from New Zealand and the aliens were made in Canada.�

Basically District 9 was fully financed before it began shooting last June in Johannesburg. After Halo, the multi-million dollar film Blomkamp was set to direct with Peter Jackson as producer, fell through, the director was encouraged to develop his series of short films about Robo Cops and Aliens in Johannesburg into a feature. Blomkamp lucked out with a mentor like Jackson who gave him virtual carte blanche, allowing unknown Sharlto Copley to play the ungainly Afrikaans anti-hero and not meddling with any of the singular South African-ness of the story and its setting.

So to the naysayers in the industry who refuse to embrace the film as local and argue about issues of �control� � Blomkamp says there�s no �director�s cut� � the final released version of the film is his vision, entire of itself. With local filmmakers struggling against the SABC�s cutbacks on local content and a seeming paralysis from other state film funding organisations, there might be a case of sour grapes. But as one commentator remarked on �Moviezone�, the Yahoo group dedicated to African filmmaking: �If the movie had bombed, none of you would be talking about it. It's only because it's been a phenomenal success that everyone wants part of it.�