The futuristic South African sci-fi that has taken the U.S box office by storm opened in its home country this weekend.
Parallels with the experience of apartheid in “District 9” are likely to resonate particularly with South African audiences. The story begins with an alien space ship breaking down over South Africa’s largest metropolis, Johannesburg — leaving the unfortunate creatures on board stranded. Their human hosts rescue them, but 20 years on they are exploited and segregated in militarized townships to keep them away them from angry locals. Made for a mere $30 million dollars, inexpensive by Hollywood standards, “District 9” film is already a huge box office hit in the U.S., having brought in $73 million during its first 10 days in cinemas. In South Africa, the country where it was filmed, it is likely strike a chord with audiences all too familiar with issues of racism, xenophobia and segregation. This time the victims are insectile aliens, but their eviction and forced removal from one place to another because of their species echoes the racial segregation that plagued South Africa until 1990. In fact, it was filmed in Soweto, a township created by the apartheid state to keep black South Africans away from white Johannesburg. “District 9” is the work of 29-year-old first-time director Neill Blomkamp with the help of “Lord of the Rings” maestro Peter Jackson, who acts as producer. Blomkamp who also co-wrote the film grew up in Johannesburg before moving to Canada in his late teens. He says he didn’t want his first film to be defined by politics. “I didn’t want to go, ‘Here’s a whole bunch of people oppressed by this apartheid-esque society’ and beat people over the head with it,” Blomkamp told CNN. “I rather wanted to say this is the city I grew up in this is what it felt like.” The film’s star and long-time friend of Blomkamp, Sharlto Copley, who plays security operative Wikus Van De Merwe says many of the film’s themes are universal.
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“The film deals with things that are so fundamentally human,” Copley told CNN. “That it’s quite easy to see how you discriminate against you know this group or that group or a religious group.” Blomkamp may want the political references to take a backseat but “District 9” is still very much a South African production. The thick South African accents and distinctive dialogue spoken by many of the film’s characters were authentic as most of the cast were, in fact, locals. “90 percent of the community was hired … catering, security, extras. Great fun,” said David James who plays a mercenary. It was good money for the unemployed residents of the Soweto suburb where much of the film was shot: “For this to be shot in my township … we feel fortunate,” said caterer Sylvia Khoza. “Many people benefit from this movie.” Extras earned $38 per day — a good wage by local standards. Lufano Tshoshouga who worked as an extra used the money to buy clothes and presents for his family he would otherwise have been unable to afford. “So they gave us a lot of money. [It] bought my son clothes, even my own clothes. Some for Christmas. Some presents for my family. It was a good privilege,” said Tshoshouga.