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Alien Refugees Land on Earth in Sci-Fi Thriller, 'District 9'


Every so often a film bursts on the scene and captivates critics and audiences alike. That is certainly the case with a new science fiction thriller by young South Africa-born filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. VOA spoke with the writer-director and his film's star for this look at District 9.

"We're coming to you from the entrance of District 9, the refugee camp set up to separate aliens from the general population."

In documentary style, the history of District 9 unfolds, starting with the remarkable events of 20 years ago when an alien craft from outer space arrived at Earth:

"Now to everyone's surprise the ship didn't come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg."

There it hovered for months until, finally, authorities decided to enter the ship.

What they find are human-sized, insect-like alien creatures …thousands and thousands of them …near death from starvation: no invasion force, but a spaceship filled with refugees. Transported down to Earth they are kept behind barbed wire in a slum named "District 9" - forcibly kept separate from the human population in a stark echo of Apartheid, the racial separation policy of the former South African government.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp was a Johannesburg teenager when his country voted for full democracy and an end to Apartheid; and he says that experience certainly influenced the District 9 story.

"Johannesburg is the city that I grew up in and I'm a complete science fiction freak; so the reason for the film existing at all is simply because I wanted to see all of the sci-fi and kind of 'genre' films that I grew up with placed in the setting that I grew up in," Blomkamp explains. "Of course once you do that, especially when you're dealing with science fiction, all of these allegories and metaphors start coming out because now you're dealing with the racially-charged history of South Africa; but really what it is science fiction in a Third World setting, which I think is kind of unusual. That could work in Mumbai or Bangkok. It could work in a lot of different places."

"We just want to go home" is the answer to every question put to the aliens who are given the derogatory nickname 'prawns' because of their crustacean-like appearance (and their insatiable taste for cat food). The human with the most direct contact is Wikus, the bureaucrat in charge of alien affairs at the huge government contractor MNU. Sharlto Copley plays Wikus and explains the character thinks he understands the prawns, even as he goes about oppressing them.

"As an actor I believe everybody acts from a position where they're doing what they think is right and nobody is all bad or all good," Copley says. "You are doing what you think is the best thing in the situation. So I always felt it was important that Wikus would always have heart underneath. There would still be a humanity. There would still be something about him so you just didn't write him off entirely, even if he's doing some things that make you think 'oh my God!' There was always that potential for more of that to be revealed as, indeed, we then do."

What Wikus discovers in that dilapidated shanty will change his life and also could hold a key to freeing the aliens from their forced confinement on Earth. Writer-director Blomkamp says it is among many twists that, he hopes, surprise the audience at every turn.

"The way I approached the action is the same way I approached the entire film, which is the fantastic and the mundane …or the crazy science fiction in an unusual everyday situation and it's also presented with an everyday 'paintbrush.' It's not glossy and over-the-top Hollywood, per se," Blomkamp says. "What I wanted the action sequences to be was raw and as though they were occurring in front of you. I didn't have a lot of really crazy camera angles. I think if you do that and you mix it with expensive visual effects you end up with something that feels sort of grounded."

Blomkamp could afford those 'expensive visual effects' thanks to Oscar-winning producer Peter Jackson. Speaking to fans at the recent Comic-Con gathering in San Diego, the New Zealand filmmaker famous for his epics said District 9 took him back to the joys of simpler storytelling.

"Watching Neill do District 9 really connected me back to the fun of making low-budget movies," Jackson says."It is stressful in some regards and it's hard because you're always fighting against the budget and you have to tailor the movie to suit the budget, but there is a degree of freedom and risk-taking that you can do when you're not dealing with these huge blockbuster-type budgets and that's a terrific lot of fun."

"There's a lot of secrets in District 9. I just want everyone watching this right now to learn from what has happened."

District 9 was shot on location in Johannesburg with a cast of South African actors. The film also blends in actual news video from the past 20 years to give it an even more realistic look.

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