Finally Johannesburg has become a mega- movie icon worldwide, and all it took was a mothership and a group of aliens who�d run out of gas. The arrival of District 9 on global screens this past month has been a phenomenon. Andrew Worsdale says its success means that Gauteng is now immortalised on the silver screen.

aug-district2
District 9
Johannesburg�s newest symbol is an alien mothership hovering like stalled technology above Gauteng. Director Neill Blomkamp has consistently said during all the press hoopla surrounding District 9 that it was the city of Johannesburg that always came first in his mind. �There�s no question that the movie is a condensation of all the elements in Joburg that had an effect on me when I was growing up, which means it couldn�t be set anywhere else,� he told independent online magazine Salon.com. �In my mind, the film doesn�t exist other than in Joburg. It was like, Johannesburg first, and District 9 grew out of that.�

Johannesburg-born Blomkamp was doing very well for himself after graduating from Vancouver Film School�s 3D Animation and Visual Effects Program. By age 17 he was working on TV series like Stargate SG-1 and at 20 he cracked an Emmy nomination as the lead animator on James Cameron�s bio-punk sci-fi show Dark Angel.

Soon, he was directing TV commercials for clients like Nike and Citroen but Blomkamp was always missing Joburg and he started thinking about placing science fiction tropes within an African city, more specifically his hometown.

His short-film trilogy Yellow, Tetra Vaal and Alive in Joburg featuring third-world Robo-Cops developed his idea of �dirty� science-fiction, combining low-tech, eye-level perspective, often shot in the dusty Joburg streets and townships, with seamless CGI. (see last month�s newsletter for links to all his shorts and commercials)

�I thought it�s really cool to put science-fiction into the environment of a big African city. I mean I lived there, and you don�t come across cities like Joburg much, especially in the first world. They just don�t exist. So that was the primary reason for making District 9. No allegories, no metaphors, nothing. Just science fiction in Joburg.�

In the film Johannesburg is depicted as a wasteland of shantytowns, fast food outlets, walled luxury compounds and government fortresses, added to it is the bleak, dry winter landscape which the director was particular about capturing. �From a photographic standpoint,� he says, �there was this particular feel I wanted to convey about Johannesburg, which is that it�s almost this burnt, nuclear wasteland, at least in winter. It really is like that.�

Many filmmakers are concerned about the harsh top-light one finds in Gauteng, that the sun seems like it�s at its height most of the day (an advantage of course is that the province has few rainy days) but Blomkamp and cinematographer Trent Opaloch embraced that quality and then turned up the dial visually to picture the city as bleak and relentlessly grey, despite the fact that Johannesburg proper is one of the greenest cities in the world.

�We filmed in winter because I wanted the city in the film to look like a scorched earth, urban wasteland,� comments Blomkamp. �Filming in the dead of winter, and wherever you looked, there were fires and ash and pollution dotting the horizon which is just what I wanted.�

The film was shot in Tshiawelo, on the outskirts of Soweto, where people had lived in shacks on a landfill for years. As filming was about to commence in June last year they were being moved to state subsidised housing 20km away. The production bought up the shacks that remained, fenced off the area and created a controlled environment in which to shoot.

�Then there's this constant sense of an urban prison, with razor wire and
electric fences and armed guards everywhere,� Blomkamp says. �I wanted to capture the essence of that, and I thought it was really cool to put science fiction in that environment. I wanted to see science fiction in that city.�

And the critics have been praising Johannesburg as a character in the flick. Last month we posted one of the first raves by Kirk Honeycutt in The Hollywood Reporter which read: �By choosing to film in the city of his youth, Johannesburg, Blomkamp situates his story in a very real place off the beaten path for science fiction. The accents, townships, barbed-wire enclosures and harsh, dusty environment all give District 9 a gritty sense of place. Why shouldn't an alien spaceship land some place other than the U.S.?�

Even the local press, when it opened last week, were giddy about their city being immortalised in such a particularly cinematic and rather weird way. Shaun de Waal in the Mail & Guardian wrote: �It's great to see Jo'burg on screen -- a dusty, gritty, sun-bleached Jo'burg. And Jo'burg plays itself. South African cities too often masquerade as European or American cities in movies made here, but in District 9 you really feel Jo'burg as Jo'burg around you.�

Johannesburg is the movie hometown of District 9 and so the local premiere had to be an event. On the 19th of August over 1800 movie-lovers, Joburgers, VIPs, outsiders and more flocked to The Zone shopping centre in Rosebank for a major bash. The entire cinema complex was closed for the day, dressed up with paraphernalia from the movie and booked for the premiere. Later a palpable throng lined up to collect tickets in a line that trailed into the piazza outside where the film�s MNU �Casspirs� were on display next to the KFC and Steers.

Terry Tselane, CEO of the Gauteng Film Commission, said: �We're so proud that it's finally coming home to land.� He went on to note that District 9 is an excellent showcase �for our talents, locations and expertise having been filmed entirely in our Province.�

Although right now Gauteng and movies might well conjure up the notion of a mothership, Tselane says it�s more than just a symbol. �It�s a sign that the Province can help deliver filmmaking on a grand scale. District 9 shows that the South African industry is indeed maturing. Not only is the film likely to become a global blockbuster (an SA first) but it also continues the growth in diversity of film genres being produced in the Province. In recent years we have seen great gangster films being made in Johannesburg, slapstick and horror, small art house gems, off-beat comedies, apartheid dramas and now with District 9, Africa�s first great � and indigenous � sci-fi film.�

The mine dumps, the Hillbrow Tower, the Vodacom sign, Ponte, and now the massive movie special effect of a spaceship out of gas over Gauteng. Joburg has a potent new insignia, and it�s all about movies.