Sunday, January 21, 2007


Neill Blomkamp's bitterly ironic satire of life in the "New" South Africa, ALIVE IN JOBURG, debuted on the Internet as a free download, in November 2005. One of the most successful promotional campaigns in recent memory, the six minute video, a CGI apprentice-piece, has made young Blomkamp a name brand. That was the whole idea.

We will begin with a look at the film, and in later Blogs explore how Blomkamp placed his own star in the entertainment firmament.

ALIVE IN JOBURG was a hit the moment it was uploaded to the Internet in November of 2005. How I missed its release I really cannot say, but fortunately I stumbled upon it in October 2006. A third year architecture student had pawned off responsibility for writing of a couple of his term papers. As I did the preparatory reading, a new term – the “Carceral state” popped up. I found it in an article on militarized landscapes, which led me directly to Neill Blomkamp’s film. It said his video depicted “post-apartheid carceral territoriality”. (For an explanation of the term, here’s a Wiki link: ).

The story behind this clever video will be told in a later Blog article. Suffice it today to simply repeat Blomkamp’s remark that it was part of a “well crafted plan” to reinvent himself as someone capable of directing feature films. The jury is still out, but he seems to have pulled it off.

Neill Blomkamp is now a Canadian, but he retains the fund of knowledge and acquired passions of a white African. Having been raised to adulthood and educated in the Republic of South Africa, he is sensitive to the culture and history, and acutely aware of the dangerous political currents which can sink any artistic project which does not defer to the tenets of the ANC social program.

In the six minute film he posits a country struggling under the burden of a massive influx of aliens, who have thrown up squatter camps, are illegally tapping into the infrastructure and overwhelming the public services. (Illegal migrant populations are a challenge common to most African cities, and in part, contributed the creation of the Apartheid system decades ago). The aliens in ALIVE IN JOBURG have secured a beach-head and play the host society against itself, pleading their case before a TV audience. They are competing with local citizens for scarce resources, worsening a pre-existing social crisis, and the hapless authorities are at a total loss with how to provide for them. The twist of course is that they are extraterrestrials, a race whose rusting fleet of spacecraft hover over Joburg, sucking energy directly from the grid. The film is edited in the form of a roughly cut TV news report, with exaggerated awareness and emphasis on human rights and dignity. The aliens are de facto criminals, but the local TV news pixilate their tentacled faces, when shown in close-up. When bemused policemen are interviewed, they struggle with their frustrations, but are held in check by their sensitivity training. It’s clear that they are failing to cope, and it's a clever reminder of the social chaos which hamstrung the National government in the last years before the handover to the ANC. It was an anxious time which Blomkamp and his family endured before immigrating to Canada.

Blomkamp is a 3D animator by trade, and was graphics trained here in Vancouver. The project was completed in his free time, scheduling around his day job. After shooting in S.A. he used LightWave and Photoshop to manipulate the video and boujou4 motion control software to marry the elements. My immediate response to a viewing on Google Video was “Wow, where can I find a sharper copy of this?” In fact Neill deliberately degraded the CGI shots to match the older SABC VHS quality news clips he edited in. In the doing, he greatly reduced production costs.
Some of the best onscreen flourishes include a scene in which an alien in a power-suit lifts and throws a Casspir armoured personnel carrier at a team of cops who are garbed in futuristic urban combat gear. My favorite images occur in the opening sequence. We see alien vessels hovering over the city, with their thick, energy sucking ganglia heavily draped over the power lines and even down into generating plant cooling towers. The pop-culture fan sites have decided for themselves that these hovering ships and even the video’s basic dramatic premise, are referenced by the old American TV series Alien Nation. That’s a gratuitous insult to Neill, I’m sure. The spacecraft are an obvious borrowing from the 1996 movie Independence Day (ID4), and everything else is tres, tres, RSA. In fact, if you watch carefully you will note that ALIVE IN JOBURG is actually set in the recent past – 1990, and not in the near future. That categorizes the film as an allegorical tale, in the same vein as Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM.

Blomkamp’s short film is in the public domain and has earned almost 200,000 free downloads from the three sites I monitor. That’s fantastic. It goes a long way toward explaining why a guy who has never done a feature, is now regarded as a “hot” new director.
January 25 - UPDATE: This morning I visited the new business location of The Embassy Visual Effects, in Vancouver, and spoke to its President, Winston Helgason. Blomkamp left a couple of months ago and is presently working in New Zealand. I was assured that the HALO project was definately "gone", but at the same time I was not told what Blomkamp is contributing as a member of the Jackson stable.

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