The 2009 Neil Blomkamp film ‘District 9’ set in present-day Johannesburg, tells the tale of an alien arrival on earth, although in a way which deviates from the standard alien narrative. These aliens arrived as refugees, escaping from the unlivable conditions of their home planet – sound familiar? District 9, a science fiction film, utilizes cinematography, sound, mise-en-scene and editing to create a sense of realism which carries the viewer throughout the entire film, making the viewer feel as though the out of this world events depicted were happening in our own reality. Although at it’s core a science fiction film, District 9 also employs a variety of documentary elements which act to further drive the realism, resulting in an experience of not just entertainment but of reflection on our own world and the trove of injustices & absurdities that exist in it resulting in a unique take on the alien invasion sub-genre, one where the viewer actually sympathizes and aligns themselves with the aliens.
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The introductory sequence starts with a collage of various documentary styles, including corporate video, news footage, found footage, expert interviews, civilian eyewitness accounts and amateur video. This collection of cinematography techniques and the way they are edited together is a great introduction as far as instilling realism as they set up the alternate history where this film is set in a way that feels real to the viewer, as opposed to an introductory/explanatory sequence in the regular narrative Hollywood blockbuster style. The latter style could arguably just as effectively give the viewer all the necessary information to make sense of the world the movie is set in, however, it will pale in comparison in terms of instilling realism from the get-go. The very first shot in this introductory sequence shows ‘MNU Alien Affairs’ worker by the name of Wikus, the films main character, being interviewed. Wikus does not appear fully prepared for the interview and asks the camera operator when he should start whilst adjusting his microphone. The setting of the interview is in a busy office, including the background noise which is present in the office, such as keyboards clicking, phones ringing, the shuffling of paper as well as the conversations of others, an inclusion of diegetic sound which would usually be cut out of most film but which by including it builds on the documentary style and creates realism from the get-go. This shot through use of mise en scene and lighting shows a messy layout, boxes everywhere shows a general unorganized setting, this coupled with the poor lighting in this office also establishes that Wikus does not necessarily have a highly prestigious job, and his seeming unpreparedness and lack of confidence with regards to the interview positions him as an everyman, a realistic character. Another use of sound, this time non-diegetic which takes place at the start of the montage that follows this shot, is an African chant song which plays in the background. This sound further establishes where the movie is set and familiarizes the viewer with the situation.
An MNU watermark appears on the corner of the interview footage, as well as other shots throughout the movie, implying this is their MNU’s own version of events, separate from the reality we see later. This editing of adding a watermark, not only establishes a set point of view which the viewer can associate the watermarked footage with, but also acts as another example of a real-world association, as the viewer is already accustomed to seeing logos in the corners of their screen when viewing programs such as the news, the same can be said for the timestamps which appear in footage such as the archival alien landing tapes, not something which is usually present in feature films. Another example is titles and bylines written on screen for the experts being interviewed, all played by relatively unknown South African actors, creating the illusion that these people are in fact the professionals that they’re presented to be, giving their opinion on real-life events. The utilization of documentary style editing, sound, cinematography & mise-en-scene boost the level of realism in this introductory sequence and on top of that, the interviews which are being shown are shown to have taken place after the events of the actual plot of the film, further orienting the viewer towards a feeling of truth to what they’re about to see.
In an example of cinematography in one of the following scenes, Wikus is seen trying to reason with one of the aliens, referred to in the film as ‘prawns’ at the alien’s house within the refugee camp shantytown known as ‘District 9’. Despite the prawn’s overbearing size compared to Wikus, who already is established as not exactly an alpha male, the prawn’s body language is defensive. The prawn is also seen holding a shovel to use as protection, even though a previous shot had already established that they have very powerful and sophisticated weaponry. This framing illustrates the lack of power the prawns have here on earth compared to back home. In the shot we see Wikus is holding a clipboard with which his power seems to resonate from and symbolizing his apparent authority but at the same time being aided by heavily armed military soldiers to his side and snipers in the helicopters above, showing the convergence of both bureaucracy and violence in the rule the humans have over the aliens, drawing parallels’ to apartheid-era South Africa as well as other regions of colonization, both in the past and present day where only thing keeping the indigenous population from disobeying and revolting against their colonizers is the threat of violence from the state.
In a later in the district, the alien known as ‘Christopher Johnson’ is seen speaking to his son, the cinematography switches up and becomes the standard narrative style, a more familiar style with regards to feature film, showing close up shots as well as point of view shots, encouraging empathy with the prawns. Soft quiet music during this scene as well as other scenes in which the alien perspective is shown is coupled with the footage, again adding to the generation of empathy between the viewer and the aliens. This is in contrast to the shots from the humans perspective in this scene, which is either hand-held camera footage or security footage with the MNU logo where this soft music is not included. This addition of external soundscape or lack thereof is to add to the contrast the two where the humans are cold and lack empathy. This use of cinematography and sound to create this contrast for the viewer aids in aligning themselves with the aliens in the narrative, in a way that feels natural and real.
As the first part of the movie progresses the shots switch back and forth between documentary’ and narrative drama styles, showing us the human and alien experience of events, the more Wikus transforms, the less we see the documentary footage, the more the real footage, in doing so, our experience throughout the film is to seamlessly as viewers orient our frame of mind more and more with the aliens, as Wikus changes.
In District 9, the alien arrival to earth as refugees due to unlivable conditions on their home planet sparks parallels with a humanitarian crisis of the real world. The most notable in recent times is the migrant crisis of the last decade and a half due to the wars of the Middle East and the xenophobia in western countries which has accompanied it. This parallel is another example of District 9 mirroring the real world. Mise-en-scene helps create this parallel with the gloomy & dirty refugee camp shantytowns where the prawns reside, creating a sense of discomfort for the viewer. Natural lighting or lack thereof also plays a big role in the realism here, the scenes inside the refugee camps do not feature any external lighting, thereby remaining dark, dull and gloomy. The same can be said for the natural lighting not being suppressed for example in the scene where Wikus and his team initially leave the van to enter the alien camp. The lighting here shines in quite heavily and is blinding to the audience, whereas in other films it would usually be dulled. By not suppressing the natural lighting, the viewer experiences the situation the same way the characters would. The district 10 camp to which the aliens are planning to be moved in the early part of the movie is shown as well, as a series of white tents on a desert plane, mise-en-scene which is visually very similar to the refugee camps which are time and time again seen on real-world news media regarding the prementioned middle east wars. The parallels between the treatment and experience of the prawns to the experience of human beings fleeing war-torn regions highlight the absurdity and cruelty of both situations simultaneously. Holding up a mirror to the ugly realities of the real world and presenting criticisms of the way we treat the ‘other’.
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While at the refugee camp, Wikus is sprayed by the alien biological material, which would act as the catalyst to his alien transformation. As Wikus is sprayed there is loud high-pitched feedback seeming to emanate from the MNU documentary style camera filming the events, this feedback continues to re-appear as Wikus’ mutation progresses and his health deteriorates. This use of sound along with the handheld documentary camera work places the viewer in the shot as if they are the ones filming the events taking place, especially considering how abrasive and high pitched the feedback is, it firmly grabs the viewers attention and brings them into the scene. Another aspect of the cinematography which adds realism is the way in which hands are placed on the lens, and the fact that fluids such spit, blood & dirt splatter onto the lens of the camera, by doing so further promoting the idea that what is happening on screen is a spontaneous, unplanned and not artificially constructed as John Grierson had said in his writings about social realism, a ‘slice of life’ (Hayward, 2006).
Sound also creates realism in the way the aliens speak. In the scene within the refugee camp sequence, Wikus meets “Christopher Johnson” for the first time and gives him an eviction notice. Christopher speaks and even though the alien language is completely made up and heavily modulated to sound foreign as alien languages usually do in science fiction, there is a noticeable addition of humanity nestled within. This is done by adding moans, grunts and sighs expressing confusion, anger and sadness. This added feature of the language of the prawn’s aids in the empathy the viewer has with them. The empathy that these familiar attributes bring also generates more disdain towards to humans in district 9, especially in a scene prior to this where sound is utilized again, this time the sound of popcorn popping as a military officer torches alien eggs with his flamethrower, an awful act of genocide met with laughter and playfulness by Wikus as he describes the similarity between the sound of the eggs being destroyed and popcorn.
District 9 succeeds in presenting a story of science fiction that feels real to the viewer. A tale of alien invasion to earth that somehow manages to align the viewer with the invader instead of the human. By utilizing cinematography, sound, mise-en-scene and editing, District 9 creates realism and holds a mirror up to the absurdities, injustices and prejudices in our own world.
- Hayward, S. (2006). Cinema studies: The key concepts. (p. 358). Taylor & Francis Group.
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