Among other things, I can understand why so many Nigerians should think that ‘District 9′ shows how deeply some South Africans detest us. The lumpen elements in the film are called ‘Nigerians’ – and the loathing is heaped much heavily on them. Throughout the story, there is not one moment in which they are invested with anything humane in their ethos and life ways. And there is only one thing for them in the end – complete extermination.
The South Africans in the film do not all behave in the same way; nor do the aliens. But not so the ‘Nigerians’.
But then, I think that that aspect of the film is not about us. The ‘Nigerian’ characters are not convincing at all. They look to me, in their get-up and mannerisms, like the South African criminals who murdered Lucky Dube. Their accents in English are variations on classic Channel O-speak, not to mention their ‘mother-tongue’ chatter which resonates as an insult to what one knows of the sonority of the languages of SA.
What is more, their violence is the carbon copy of what we have been led by the international media – SABC included in that ilk – to expect of South African black street gangs in the post-Apartheid era. And their ‘black magic’ and cyborg obsession seem to have been taken straight and undiluted from the writing of the Comaroffs on the phenomenon of the ‘occult economy’ in South Africa (Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, 1999, ‘Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony’, in American Ethnologist, Vol. 26, No.2, pp. 279-303).
I heard that Dube’s killers said during trial that they attacked him because they had thought his social poise and palpable sense of control over material wherewithal marked him out as a Nigerian who was flaunting his wealth and rubbing their noses in the rude fact that he had beaten them to ‘it’ in their own country. Those urban SA brigands are the prototype for that ‘Nigerian’ sub-underworld in the underworld of ‘District 9’.
If I regret anything in the film it is the myth of its storytelling framework. It is clear that crucial parts of this mythic framework revolve around the laager mentality and a fascination with miscegenation that beggars belief and neurosis, hence the film’s inevitable interjection of science fiction into the stream of everyday life. These are themes that were prominent social issues in South African society in the Apartheid days, and the film just seems unable to get beyond them. Is that the way their society still is? God help us.
The insight of the film is clearly about South Africa. It is the nightmare of that country of otherwise great promise whose current president is Jacob Zuma – fucker of anything, the Zuma stereotype would, indeed, have brazenly fucked the aliens in the flick and damned and, perhaps, survived the consequences to boot.
(Let me add that the Obasanjo stereotype would do the very same thing. His son Gbenga knows it, and OBJ’s first wife has confirmed in her tell-all that her husband is a sex monster.)
‘District 9’ is about that country where some variety of folk medicine prescribes the rape of virgins, old women and day-old infants as cure for HIV/AIDS; South Africa whose medical establishment once boasted a ‘Doctor Death’ among its membership; that country one of whose favourite exports to the rest of the continent is deadly weapons and even deadlier mercenaries; South Africa many of whose citizens, caught up in the delirium of how to deal with the turbulence of life in a long period of social transition, have in the very recent past maimed and massacred Nigerians and other foreigners residing in their country. This film could make me shed some tears for that otherwise beloved country.
The fictive concept of ‘District 9’ is that it is cast as a documentary on one defining event in the history of SA in the twenty-first century. Yet the themes that propel this concept make up, as I have said, a neat raft of South African déjà vu, thinly ‘alienated’, à la Bertolt Brecht, by the techniques of science fiction and pseudonymy.
However, the use of the term ‘Nigerians’ to label a particularly worrisome element in the society of the film suggests that the filmmakers are missing something in their faculty for self- and other-awareness as regards contemporary SA society. It is not as if real-life Nigerians cannot be gangsters. They can be; in fact, as is well-known, many Nigerians are terrible and shameless gangsters at home and abroad. And there are, for sure, Nigerian gangsters in Jo’burg who bring the already tattered image of their country into further disrepute, if that is still possible these days. The trouble is that these people in the film are called ‘Nigerian’ gangsters and prostitutes, but they play their roles to the hilt as the South African version of a social problem that is common the world over. They do not seem and sound Nigerian in the least. Well, since disguise is part of the skills-set gangsters require, this problem has resolved itself. And it is a very poor disguise, indeed, one to which we cannot apply the standard ‘voice of Jacob, hand of Esau’. Call them what you will, the lumpen elements in ‘District 9’ are one and all South Africans. This looks like a classic case of Horace’s Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur (Though the name has been changed, the story is still about you).
But is there or is there not something in the fact that the latter point is lost on so many of us Nigerians? What if a group of Neo-Nazis in some film set in Europe decide to call themselves ‘Nigerians’ and give their leader the name Obasanjo: would we as citizens of the UN-recognized state of Nigeria feel that it is our lived experience that is being alluded to? What does that kind of reaction say about some of our inmost fears—the paranoia that one of these days we might just be found out to be what we are not?
Apart from the skilful use of FX (Nollywood, shame on you!), I think that the filmic qualities of ‘District 9’ are high enough. It harks back to Orson Welles and the ‘War of the Worlds’ in its use of the concept of the TV documentary and news report to give impact, immediacy and verisimilitude to its narrative sequence of dystopian cyborg fiction.
‘District 9’ is a film that seeks to propagate an enlightened view on alien treatment, with the message: If only we understood them, we would know that they want to go home. But all of that enlightenment is undermined by the name-calling or pseudonymy that tries to gloss over one of the most serious problems of urban life in the country. The gangster problem in SA is not merely an immigrant thing. And it is high time this reality was bluntly faced and tackled. The South Africans can learn a thing or two from Ghana and Nigeria. Either country, at some point in its history, attempted the self-deception of blaming immigrant bloodsuckers for its real woes and hallucinatory terrors; both failed.
A couple of years ago, we saw what xenophobia wrought in South Africa. Obviously, there are other things besides xenophobia in this film. But the depiction of the ‘Nigerians’ cannot be downplayed as a minor event. It is one of the components propping up the action in the plot, giving it dimension as well as a visible force field of tension. It is also a fictive missile that bears scorn and contempt intended for real-life Nigerians. I don’t feel perturbed by it because I am aware of its ultimate failure—the ‘Nigerian’ characters are phoney; they don’t come alive as such. Instead, they tell me a South African story in SA style and voice. Too bad for the intentions of the makers of the film, but the Nigerian version of the malaise of gangsterism does not come out in what they portray.
But how many other people can see through it all? And I don’t mean how many others of us Nigerians; I mean how many others in the world at large see it like I see it? Will the Somali who doesn’t know our Nigerian ways notice that the name-calling in the film boomerangs as a witless joke on the South Africans themselves? Will the Indian, the Finn, the Chilean, the Moroccan demand their money back on witnessing the collapse of the cheap trick in the very first scene in which it is mounted? Are the Israelis aware that the South Africans have not been able to reproduce our Nigerian shibboleth?
Who amongst us thinks that everything in a film is taken as fictive by every viewer? Any resemblance to persons and places blah, blah, blah.
Well, I have to admit that those who made this film somehow chose their target well. Surely, it would have been a different matter entirely if the kingpin of the ‘District 9’ Nigerians is named Emeagwali or Margaret Ekpo or Osundare or Oshiomhole or Aminu Kano or Claude Ake or Mary Onyali or Fawehinmi or Saro-Wiwa or Anikulapo-Kuti or Buchi Emecheta.
Just as many of us who are citizens of Nigeria, suffering from some Jekyll-Hyde syndrome, are afraid that we might be caught one day doing what we never did – hence our indignation at this image that is not us; this image that we could have pooh-poohed and laughed at – so are we hardly bothered to demand, even if only in a face-saving routine, an apology from the ‘District 9’ filmmakers for naming their leader of thugs Obasanjo.
Of course, that thug leader doesn’t even begin to function as a lampoon of the Nigerian leader. Only comic farce can stand the tragicomedy of OBJ on its head. But that is beside the point, which is that the vast majority of Nigerians are not going to request that SA apologize for the abuse of OBJ’s name. His name cannot be abused, as it were. And Nollywood won’t dare repay the compliment by desecrating, say, the name of Mandela or Desmond Tutu in one of its demon-infested absurdities.
So isn’t there something in ‘District 9’ that speaks the truth about one aspect of our social experience, something that we are living with at least until our much delayed ‘revolution’, er, er, happens—that the Nigerian head of state or governor, minister, rep, senator, etc. often doubles as the chief of the bandits who menace the rest of society?
There is something in this film for us, no matter how badly done the stereotyping is.
But good luck to any of those South Africans who do not want to call a spade a spade. They might as well eat their corn meal porridge with a shovel and brand it a ‘Nigerian’ spoon.