“Why did van der Merwe keep a pair of scissors in his racing car?
So he could cut the corners!”
For the last several months, ever since first viewing the initial teaser trailer, there has only been one movie to have successfully garnered my obsessive anxiety.
Not Slumdog Millionaire. Not Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Not even the infallible Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. No, this exclusive obsession could not be for any ordinary movie or typical Hollywood cash cow.
Instead, my focus has continuously been drawn to a movie which is set, surprisingly, in the very city within which I live.
That movie has been none other than this years science fiction sleeper hit, District 9.
As a gamer and general technology enthusiast, I have been aware of Neill Blomkamp for quite some time. Without a doubt, Blomkamp’s most notable breakthrough was way back in 2005, for his short film entitled Alive in Joburg. However, what many people may not realise, is that Alive in Joburg actually served as the premise for District 9.
It was this short film which allowed Blomkamp to garner the attention of the ring baring Peter Jackson. At the time, Jackson’s company, WETA Digital, was recruited by Microsoft, in association with Bungie Game Studios, to help produce a series of live action short films to promote the latest game in the Halo franchise, Halo 3. As it so happened, Jackson liked Blomkamp’s work in Alive in Joburg so much that he chartered the South African to be the director for the Halo: Arms Race live action short film.
The Halo: Arms Race short film was so well received that Microsoft decided to green light a Halo movie with Blomkamp as the director, courtesy of Peter Jackson. Unfortunately, the Halo film project was shelved, due to “internal disagreements between Fox, Universal and Microsoft” (Boucher, 2009). However, because Halo was supposed to be Blomkamp’s foray into the world of feature filmmaking, Peter Jackson and those involved felt obligated to give Blomkamp financial support and a chance to direct another film. Consequently, it was decided that the short film Alive in Joburg could be expanded into a feature. Ultimately, and according to Jackson, District 9 was born “the day Halo [the film] died” (Boucher, 2009). On a side note, the Halo film appears to be back on track with Stephen Spielberg at the helm.
So, in a cruel twist of fate, if it was not for the initial demise of a Halo film, we would most likely not have the film District 9.
On Wednesday 12th August 2009, I was notified by Sterkinekor entertainment of the South African premiere of District 9. To say that I was excited, is a complete and utterly profound understatement. I actually squealed in delight – not a good sign, what with Swine Flu (H1N1) rampant in our parts these days. Subsequently, rather than waiting for a press invitation, I immediately went out and secured my own tickets to the event – eight in total: for myself (Hans), Athena, Dillon, Cleo, Terence, Charissa, Gideon and Tiffany.
There are nights and then there are ‘NIGHTS’ in Johannesburg! Yesterday evening, Wednesday 19th August 2009, was certainly one of those ‘NIGHTS’. It appeared that the whole of Johannesburg had pitched up for the premiere, well over 1000 people. Everyone was there, from the A, B and C list’s all the way to the ultra exclusive mainstream folk, such as yours truly.
Upon arriving at The Zone, in Rosebank, we were greeted with a preliminary red carpet; bursting at the seems with guests and stretching over a good 50 metres from the entrance all the way to a series of brightly lit and coloured ‘shacks’. Acting like born and bred celebrities, we completely bypassed the burgeoning queue of astonished guests and made our way toward the ‘nouveau chic’ inspired construction (I already had our tickets, the perks of forward thinking). It was there that we were hounded by the paparazzi, who gracefully led us into the shanty town structures for our mandatory photographic session.
After intimately exploring the District 9 drop zone, and after a thorough security check by Multi National United (MNU) guards, we were tagged and relocated to The Red Carpet. The paparazzi had a field day. We narrowly managed to evade the press and made our way to the celebrity friendly Non-Human safe zone. It was there that we joined the celebrity ranks and socialised with fellow artisans such as Heinz Winckler, DJ Fresh (who is rather arrogant), Prime Circle, Miss Earth, Cindy Nel (PDA alert – get a room next time) and the cast of Egoli, among many other notables.
After a brief reprieve, made bearable by a multitude of delicious buffet styled snacks and copious amounts of champagne and wine, an MNU agent announced that the District 9 premiere was about to begin and that we should all take our places in the cinemas for launch. Most impressively, everything had been very well thought through and catered for; with freshly produced condiments awaiting our consumption in each and every available seat.
Without giving too much away, the story focuses on an extraterrestrial race, hatefully known as ”Prawns” by locals, who are forced to live in ‘squalid’ conditions, near the city of Johannesburg in South Africa, who suddenly find a kindred spirit in a government agent, who is unexpectedly exposed to their biotechnology whilst being tasked with the responsibility of relocating the aliens to a new “District 10” camp. With family drama, corporate politics, inter-species sexual relations and some rather bad Nigerian ‘muti-loving’ gangsters, lest not forget steroid raging marines and a verbose use of gore, what more could science fiction critics want?
In essence the movie is a politically driven science fiction drama with a documentary styled focus, which offers no illusions to the fact that the movie is heavily based on South Africa’s ‘apartheid era’. After all, the title District 9 is a homage to District Six, a former inner-city residential area in Cape Town, South Africa, which was declared a “whites only” area by the apartheid government and whose population of 60,000 inhabitants were forcibly relocated to the Cape Flats – a zone 25 kilometres away from the Cape Town city centre. Consequently, the film is not shy about exploring hushed notions of stereotyping, xenophobia, inhumanity and blatant racism; a story not so far off from South African reality. Even with the underlying social commentary, which I think viewers may be unable to ignore, the movie itself is fascinating.
One of the best aspects of the film, in my opinion, has to do with the humour. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, the film is inundated with all sorts of local South African “in-jokes”, references and symbolism. For example, anyone who does not chuckle at the fact the the protagonist is a ‘Van Der Merwe’ or, better still, that the main expert on the case hails from ‘Kempton Park University’, cannot truly consider themselves true ‘Joburgers’, let alone South African.
I have written about casting veritable unknowns as leads within feature films before. As always, it is often quite a risky endeavour. However, in this case, every one of the characters was an ‘unknown’. Even so, the outcome proved to be worth the risk. Of particular mention is Sharlto Copley, who plays the anti-hero Wikus van der Merwe. I can honestly say, that Copley is excellent as the bumbling, mild mannered, Clark-Kent-esque MNU agent. He pulls off the role with absolute aplomb and I think they would have been hard pressed to find anyone else who could have done it as well as he did.
“I hope people will be inspired to see an Afrikaans character played with a redemptive quality. Afrikaaners have just held this guilt for apartheid – fair enough in some instances, but it’s also remarkable what they actually did in the end, giving over the power that they had”.
Sharlto Copley on his character ‘Wikus van der Merwe’ (Jackie May, 2009)
Visually, the movie is sclera drying and amazingly crafted! Considering the budget, a mere $30 million, they did an astounding job. One would not be labelled a fool for thinking the movie to have a budget of over $100 million! It just goes to show that one does not need the exorbitant amounts often thrown around Hollywood to create a sublime and visually intensive movie (Michael Bay, I am looking at you)! The alien creature visuals effects were created by Image Engine in Vancouver, Canada, while additional visual effects were created by The Embassy Visual Effects, Zoic Studios and Peter Jackson’s firm, Weta Digital. The film also makes use of a unique cinematographic style. Think of it as a mix between the Blair Witch Project, Carte Blanche and Men In Black. Surprisingly, Blomkamp handles the varied mix amazingly well.
According to Chris Lee (Los Angeles Times, 2009), over the course of District 9’s opening weekend in American theatres, the science fiction thriller earned $37 million at the box office, surpassing all commercial expectations and, moreover, hauling in $7 million more than the “scrappy quasi-documentary cost to produce”. As of Tuesday night, the film had pulled in an additional $10 million, earning a total $47.1 million! The film is, no doubt, on it’s way to being the unofficial surprise hit of the season! “Jislike”!
District 9 has the scope of Independence Day, the visual cinematographic style of Cloverfield, the suspenseful thrill of the original Aliens and a gripping well written story like that of Primer.
After being completely mesmerised by the absolute brilliance of District 9, we were all greeted by an inability to prevent ourselves from clapping in admiration and pride at a job well done. District 9 is proof, more than ever, that one can truly be proud to be a South African.
Everybody knows that when there is a premiere there is bound to be some kind of SWAG (Stuff We All Get). Bear in mind, this is not Hollywood, so we were not expecting items like District 9 emblazoned mobile phones or anything *hint, nudge, hint*. Thankfully, Sterkinekor did not disappoint. Upon exiting the theatre, each guest was handed a flower made out of the cans that soft drinks are sold in. This may not seem like much, and you may be thinking ‘what the hell’?, but until you have actually watched District 9, you cannot really appreciate this unexpected, yet extremely welcomed, gift. Guests were also given free posters and several sets of printed photographs from the ‘shack’ photo shoot that I alluded to earlier.
Of course, before we decided to leave, we made time to schmooze with the actors and actresses from the movie. All of them were incredibly modest and were more than happy to have their pictures taken with us (you hear that DJ Fresh? The ‘now’ international stars are ‘modest’! Go look it up). A majority of whom we inadvertently snubbed before watching the film, since we really had no idea who they were. I had actually asked an ‘alleged’ celebrity to take a photograph of my posse and myself after the movie. The look on his face was one of utter confusion when I placed the camera in his hands. He obviously thought I was going to ask him if I could have a photograph with him and his ‘entourage’. Good times!
Before we made our graceful exit, we were covertly approached by this inconspicuous little lady, who offered an exclusive invitation to the District 9 after party. Just when we thought the evening could not get any better, it did! We vehemently accepted and agreed to let her show us the way. After a short nipple freezing walk, in the middle of Joburg, we entered the Circle Bar at the Rosebank Hotel. One word came to mind: “Bliksem”!
The place was buzzing with the most incredible vibe. There were celebrities left, right and centre. The paparazzi were in full force, taking photographs at every opportunity. Interviews were being conducted right under our noses. Whilst the rest of the generally beautiful populace continued to mingle and converse. All the while being serenaded by a talented saxophonist whose melodically twanged notes were beautifully complimented by the resident DJ’s mastery of uplifting lounge grooves. We. Had. Arrived!
We mingled. We feigned knowing people we did not actually know (Cleo, you are a total ‘machete’). We gorged ourselves on the abundantly divine starters that were making the rounds. We spilled our drinks. We took photographs. Photographs were taken of us. We made friends with the cast of the locally produced Afrikaans movie, ‘Bak Gat’. We sang. We ‘whooped’. We danced. We changed the setting of our ‘inner’ electronic circle (Circle Bar FTW). We laughed. We laughed until we cried tears of insurmountable joy!
I would like to publicly send a shout out to Sterkinekor entertainment and all those who made the District 9 premiere a possibility. From the decor, red carpet, free condiments and buffet styled starters, all the way to the great SWAG, copious photographic opportunities, celebrity appearances and ultra chic after party; I do not think it could have been done any better! Thank you for creating such an amazing event. One that will be imbedded in our memories for many years to come. You have shown that South Africa is just as capable as any other country to hold a first class event.
I can honestly say that this was one of the most memorable nights I have ever had. It was truly a spectacular event and one that will surely be hard to beat. However, I do not think the experience would have been as ‘mindblowing’ as it was, without the amazing group of family and friends who attended the District 9 premiere with me. You are all, without a doubt, a phenomenal clique of people, who share perfect chemistry. Thank you all so much!
Until the next time “Milieunairs”!