Exploring Dispossession and the Crossing of Borders in the Movie District 9
Aliens and humans co-exist in the city of Johannesburg for over two decades in the movie District 9. Since the start, this co-existence has been troublesome for the government and the people of Johannesburg. When the aliens arrived, the government of South Africa had no choice but to create a militarized camp for the aliens as a way to isolate and supposedly protect them. As the decades dragged on, the people no longer feel safe having the aliens in the city. With fear and mistrust mounting, riots were inevitable as the people and aliens fought bitterly in and around District 9. The story took off when Wikus van de Merwe, head of the relocation team, started to transform into an alien after spraying a dark fluid on his face found in one of the slum shelters in District 9. The rest of the story details Wikus’ determination to resist the transformation and escape the advances of the officials of Multinational United (MNU). From an international standpoint, District 9 reflects many of the lessons surrounding globalization, mobility, and the crossing of borders. For one, the film tackles the concept of zones or camp as an abject space. Second, the film brings to attention the financialization of multinational corporations through the actions of Multinational United (MNU) toward the ailing Wikus. Third, the film explores the concept and the problem of dispossession and the violence, discrimination, and injustice that accompany acts of dispossession. Fourth, District 9 tackles the power and the role of the military within the context of dispossession or displacement. Last, the film portrays the phenomenon of slum tourism as a voyeuristic trend noting that the promotion of slum life through tourism is unethical and exploitative.
In its portrayal of the abject space, District 9 succeeds in emphasizing the abject space as a place where the dwellers are rendered inessential. Also, District 9 does not hesitate to show the consequence that the abject space necessarily produces. According to Isin and Gyriel, abject spaces “are those in and through which increasingly distressed, displaced, and dispossessed peoples are condemned to the status of strangers, outsiders, and aliens” (182). This description of an abject space is rightly portrayed in District 9 as the aliens were enclosed in a space absent of rights and dignity. Although the subjects are aliens in the literal sense and thus arguably deserving of the abject space, the film still manages to show that despite the seeming appropriateness of the logic of the abject space as it applies to the aliens, the abject space is still a space that seeks invisibility for the inhabitant.
While the militarized zone reserved for the aliens is understandable given their foreignness, District 9 maintains that putting the aliens in a state of “existential, social, political, and legal limbo” (Isin & Gyriel 189) does not do the government and the city any good. The reason for this is that in the end, there will only be more trouble and harm such as when the people and aliens rioted and when the military performed indiscriminate brutality against the aliens as shown during the relocation. The inexistence that is central to the concept of the abject space is interpreted in the film not as inattention but as deliberate neglect amidst widespread recognition and popular attention. It should be noted that the presence of the aliens in Johannesburg was well known throughout the world. All nations wanted to hear news about the aliens in Johannesburg so the aliens in the film cannot be said to have suffered from lack of attention. The inexistence therefore that District 9 wants to show the viewers through
the abject space represented by the militarized zone is the neglect of the needs of the aliens. The aliens in District 9 were allowed to live and scavenge like animals. Granted that these so-called prawns have needs different from humans, the government should have taken more conscious and well-intentioned steps to understand the aliens by giving them better living conditions. By relegating and confining the aliens to the abject space that is the District 9, the government is in turn denying the aliens any form of basic existence.
Apart from the abject space, District 9 also portrays the financialization of multinational corporations that follow the crossing of borders of the aliens. Although there different ways to understand and define financialization as they apply to multinational corporations, it can be understood as it is portrayed in the film as the maximization of financial benefits (Morhan 185) and the extension of the influence and size of firms. In District 9, the firm in question is the Multinational United (MNU) which is one of the biggest weapons manufacturer in Johannesburg, Africa. District 9 tackles the subject of financialization of multi-national firms by focusing on the dangers that come with the philosophy and processes of financialization. After finding out that Wikus now has alien genes in his body, officials at Multinational United agreed to take advantage of the transformation of Wikus by using his alien hand to test the alien weapons confiscated. In one of the scenes, an official at MNU declares that Wikus’ body represents “billions of dollars’ worth of biotechnology.” With this scene, District 9 is making the statement that financialization of multinational corporations has its danger since these firms are willing to take and explore necessary measures to expand their influence and financial worth in the global market.
Aside from the possible unethical means that the financialization of multinational corporations can entail, District 9 also brings to attention the topic of displacement or dispossession which is one of the more common stories accompanying mobility and the crossing of borders. Originally dispossessed because of their sudden departure from their planet, the aliens experience further dispossession in the hands of the people after being confined in District 9 then later forcefully relocated to another site. The problem with dispossession as shown through the film is how it acts to deprive the dispossessed of basic justice and dignity. Dispossession works to make the dispossessed feel rejected and discriminated on. When the aliens arrived in Johannesburg, the government implemented discrimination rules and policies. For instance, certain areas (e.g. public zones) were inaccessible to the aliens. Also, there were laws prohibiting the aliens from voting and traveling. Although District 9 does not directly denounce the discrimination laws in Johannesburg, the empathy shown by the film toward the aliens as a dispossessed group serves as a proof that the film does not support the injustice undertaken by the government in the form of legalized discrimination.
More than the discrimination, dispossession as shown in District 9 can also lead to violence and crimes. Although the film does not directly claim that the criminal behaviors of the aliens are but the necessary product of their dispossession, District 9 is clearly arguing that the inability of the government to provide a legitimate, humane, and productive space for the aliens is contributing to the growth of alien cr...