“Neill Blomkamp`s Giant Apartheid Metaphor”

Here`s a characteristically clueless interview in the Toronto Globe and Mail with District 9 filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, whose Afrikaner family fled Johannesburg for Vancouver in 1997 when he was 17 because of street violence. It`s entitled “Neill Blomkamp`s Giant Apartheid Metaphor:”

Q. In District 9 , aliens land in Johannesburg and are forced to live in a filthy shanty town, segregated from human society. Can we get the giant apartheid metaphor out of the way first?

A. It isn`t necessarily just a metaphor for apartheid. It`s not. … What it is meant to be is a whole bunch of topics that had an effect on me when I was living there. Topics I became more interested in once I left.

Q. Such as?

A. Just everything that goes on in that country – xenophobia, the collapse of Zimbabwe and the flood of illegal immigrants into South Africa, and then how you have impoverished black South Africans in conflict with the immigrants. All that amounts to a very unusual situation. And South Africa is kind of the birthplace of the modern private military contractor … so there`s a lot of other things besides apartheid that I wanted to touch on, such as segregation in general. …

Q. How the world mistreats the helpless aliens struck me as very probable, sadly. Did you research histories of displaced peoples?

A. Not actively. But, because I grew up in South Africa, the topics I`m interested in tend to be that kind of thing. Israel and Palestine, I`m really interested in, displaced people wherever. The left side of my brain is very interested in these things that I, at the time, felt were unrelated to filmmaking. I just wanted to be a filmmaker – I like design, science fiction, weapons, I like the geekery of it. And this was separate; I read all of those world topics separately. So, at some subconscious level, it [refugee history] worked its way in.

Q. You come from a visual effects background, but yada yada off to a different topic …

Is it really that hard for film writers to recognize that Neill Blomkamp is particularly interested in the topic of displaced persons because he is a displaced person? Are we that far gone into Who? Whom? thinking that Blomkamp`s answers in dozens of interviews over the last month are largely incomprehensible to the great majority of journalists?

Just because your parents can afford to get you to some safe place that`s also nice like Vancouver doesn`t mean you aren`t displaced. Vladimir Nabokov spent his first four years of exile at Cambridge U. during the Brideshead Revisited era, but he spent the rest of his life making art about displacement. Nabokov carefully nurtured his homesickness. His saintly wife put up with his refusing to ever have a home (when he taught at Cornell they moved each year, housesitting for professors on sabbatical) on the grounds that it would weaken his memories of his Russian home because she was convinced he was a genius. (Suddenly, when he was 59, the world agreed with her.)

Blomkamp is likewise a homesick artist. Unlike Nabokov, he`s allowed to visit his old home country, but downtown Johannesburg deteriorated so rapidly that it was kind of like if Stalin had let Nabokov revisit St. Petersburg just to taunt him. One of the last shots in District 9 is of Ponte City (the oval skyscraper with a “Vodacom” sign on the top). The Wikipedia article on the building points out the symbolism:

Ponte City is a skyscraper in the Hillbrow neighbourhood of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was built in 1975 to a height of 173 metres, making it the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa. The 54-story building is cylindrical, with an open center allowing additional light into the apartments. The center space is known as “the core” and rises above an uneven rock floor. Ponte City was an extremely desirable address for its views over all of Johannesburg and its surroundings.

During the 1990s, after the end of apartheid, many gangs moved into the building and it became extremely unsafe. Ponte City became symbolic of the crime and urban decay gripping the once cosmopolitan Hillbrow neighborhood. The core filled with debris five stories high as the owners left the building to decay.

This kind of thing has nurtured a dystopian Garrett Hardinesque turn of mind in Blomkamp.