Sunday, June 14, 2009

DISTRICT 9 - The genesis of Neill Blomkamp's dystopian allegory

I'm old enough now that I can draw circles around genres which once excited publishers and Hollywood agents, but which were just as quickly discarded. Can you recall for instance, the sinister South African gangsters and rogue Apartheid agents who once populated movies like Lethal Weapon 2 and books like VORTEX the Larry Bond thriller?
The genre exploded in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union collapsed and fiction producers were suddenly desperate to find a viable alternative to the KGB. The nemesis for the 90s had to be a viable stereotype, and one which was hated by a broad demographic. Apartheid-era South Africans were perceived as vile villains who fit the Bill. They were after all, sophisticated, cunning, privileged and desperate to survive.

Well sir, our world changed too quickly. The mafia emerged as the new Russian strongmen and Muslim terrorists were a gift to our pop culture, scarier than the KGB ever was. As for the Republic of South Africa, the A.N.C. regime is already into its third president and a couple of million black kids were born under A.N.C. slogans and promises. Those who didn't like "the New South Africa" simply left, and now constitute an extremely tame diaspora in their adoptive countries. That said, a South African born Canadian has just crafted his first feature film, and his unique vision might trigger something akin to a new genre. That would be fun !Where CHARLIE JADE , the Canadian-funded South African television series failed, perhaps DISTRICT 9 the riskier Science Fiction - allegory may just succeed in stirring our imagination.

In 2005 Neill Blomkamp and friends crafted a six minute short called ALIVE IN JOBURG. The server couldn't keep up with the demand and the film became an Internet phenomenon. Peter Jackson was impressed and invited Blomkamp to try the creative atmosphere in New Zealand.

PART ONE: Original Sin

Neill Blomkamp arrived in Vancouver, B.C. with a South African high school diploma and a burgeoning talent for computer graphics. It seems he was not born with "original sin" as his family had avoided the taint of active participation in the organs of "White Rule". Neill never could wash the R.S.A. out of his hair, and so after some training here in computer VFX he secured steady employment and made it a personal priority to return to his native land each summer and discuss creative collaboration with young filmmakers who had stayed behind.

My research into Blomkamp's life shows that he has surprising depth, and that he will not shy from social issues that would crucify less sure men. With this movie, DISTRICT 9, Blomkamp is engaging in political allegory every bit as clever and biting as George Orwell pulled off with ANIMAL FARM several decades ago. We are witnessing a creative concept which is unique and possibly significant.

A production still from DISTRICT 9, a low budget Science Fiction - Allegory produced by Director Peter Jackson. The movie goes into general release on August 14. The INDEPENDENCE DAY type Alien spacecraft of Blomkamp's 2005 short, has been replaced by vessels equally sinister looking.

When SONY announced this project back in November of 2007, I was impressed by Blomkamp's tenacity and skill at getting the "Big Boys" to trust his creative judgement. The Fan Blogs are currently busy scraping up every studio dangle or minute clue needed to assemble a prediction of what this movie will look like. It is clear that the viral marketing campaign for the film has only succeeded in creating confusion, which is never a good thing in marketing. (see for example this site) A few leaked photos from the production show us a small outdoor set representing the entrance gate to DISTRICT 9. They confirm that production money was very tight, as does the Casting which was also very low budget.

We were told that Blomkamp co-wrote the DISTRICT 9 script with "his partner" Terri Tatchell. Now that's rather extraordinary. Blomkamp is certainly a wunderkind, but Ms. Tatchell has no S.F. track record whatsoever, except in her relations with Blomkamp. Tatchell attended the Vancouver Film School in 2001, earning her diploma in Writing for Film, Television & New Media. She then got a job at Rainmaker Studio under the late Bob Scarabelli, and was designated as Rainmaker's "Industry Relations Co-ordinator". At the same time she joined the Board of the Vancouver chapter of Women in Film and Television. (She served one term as its President but is no longer a member.) This thumbnail photo, which dates to 2003, is still archived on the WIFTV web page:It was at Rainmaker that Terri met Neill, who was then employed in VFX. She has no experience with Science Fiction and probably no cultural knowledge of South Africa beyond what she has picked up through Neill. Tatchell's best known creative effort is actually a stage play written for high school students, which is added to the curriculum of some schools because it teaches kids about the legal fight to gain Canadian women the vote. It's called "Woman Idiot Lunatic Criminal" and tells the story of a girl transported back to 1910 to meet her Suffragette great-grandmother. (The story takes its name from the awkward wording of the Canada Elections Act of 1918.) I'm not trying to pick on the lady but the truth is that while Neill was sequestered for most of last year directing the movie, Tatchell was back here in B.C. involved in her own thing. I can't believe she added much to the movie project, but who knows?

In PART TWO of this article I plan to comment on some of the creative aspects of DISTRICT 9.

UPDATE: It seems that the makers of DISTRICT 9 have themselves shill over on Wikipedia. In my naivete (When will I EVER learn?) I decided to contribute a few helpful sentences to the Wiki page that was created for this flic. In FOUR minutes some creepy wiki-guardian had removed my contribution. Some techno-Hobbit down in New Zealand perhaps.