In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cheryl Stobie: Synthetic Dirt in District 9

Beginning with a contextualisation based on pertinent ideas of Nicolas Bourriaud about the function of and effects associated with contemporary art, I move on to an analysis of the representation of literal and synthetic dirt within the film District 9 (2009), directed by Neill Blomkamp. The film mixes genres, but is mainly to be viewed as science fiction. Its gritty grounding in the realities of the South African cityscape acts to reintroduce the element of pressing social reality which has retreated to the background in much recent science fiction film, which has emphasised clean and clinical special effects. I use Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s critical work on the implications of the significance of the encounter with the alien as the ultimate contact zone between self and other to analyse District 9, quoting his suggestive observation, “Aliens are our shadows, and we are theirs.” Ways in which entry can be made into the consciousness of the other include the perceptual, sympathetic and symbolic.

Using this starting point, I concentrate on the physical, emotional and aesthetic effects achieved as the main protagonist of District 9 moves from a human to an alien embodiment. I chart the progress of the body-horror and ethical development entailed in this change of state, making reference to ideas first developed by Mary Douglas in her anthropological work, Purity and Danger. The viewer’s responses are shown to be complex and muddy, composed of warring impulses of revulsion and admiration. This is appropriate as aliens are ambiguously depicted in the film as technologically advanced but consumers of human flesh.

As the central character, Wikus, becomes an alien his body becomes a rich symbolic ground. His ingestion of cat food and his increasingly leaky, abject body reflect ideas which can be interpreted universally, but more specifically within the South African context reveal anxieties about the cohesion of a minority group. I conclude by analysing the end of the film, which is moving, future-directed and insistent on the significance of art in society.

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