I wasn’t really prepared for this film. I was expecting a small-scale drama set in the apartheid era. I knew the film had struggled to get distribution and my hopes weren’t high. On the other hand, I wanted to support a South African film. If I’d thought about it a little more, I would have remembered reading/listening to an interview with Sophie Okonedo and I might have been less surprised. The film is based on the true story of Sandra Laing: Sophie Okonedo with her Nigerian-Jewish background obviously felt strongly for Sandra.
What I was lucky to see, in one of the film’s few cinema screenings so far, was a great melodrama which was highly engaging and very affecting with extremely fine performances all round. My partner was amazed to learn that the film is only showing in a few places as she thought it was a mainstream film that would please audiences everywhere. I’m struck by the similarities between the distribution of the film and the similar fate that befell another biopic about a brave young woman, Sophie Scholl – more on this later. First an outline of the story, without giving too much away.
Outline (no spoilers)
The story begins with Sandra Laing as a young girl of 9 or 10 who is being driven to the boarding school in South Africa where her older brother is already a student. Sandra has so far been schooled at home in the bush where her parents run a general store. She has been a happy girl in a caring environment and starting school is a shock to her. This is 1965 and the apartheid system is in full operation. Sandra’s parents are Afrikaners and so she is officially ‘white’. But Sandra does not look like the other children in the school. Her appearance suggests that her background is mixed race which under apartheid means that she should be classified as ‘Coloured’ (one of four racial groups defined by the apartheid system). When the other parents object to her presence, a battle ensues between Sandra’s father, a stubborn man who insists that she is ‘white’, the school and eventually the apartheid authorities who are called in to make a ruling.
The film plot actually begins in 1994 on the first day of free elections in the new ‘Rainbow Nation’ of South Africa. Sandra is a woman of 40 working in a factory when the TV reporters arrive to discover that the end of apartheid has come too late for her. For thirty years, the stupidity (not to mention the immorality) of apartheid has caused Sandra and her family great pain. If this makes it sound that the story told in flashback will be unremittingly bleak, take heart. As the image above attests, there is a more hopeful end to a story that contains both joy and despair.
In generic terms I would place the film as a melodrama. As usual, the critics refer to melodrama in pejorative terms (“the film skirts melodrama . . . , . . . doesn’t fall into melodrama” etc.) But here is a CinemaScope feature with use of landscape and mise en scène and some heavy symbolism (Sandra’s comfort object as a child is a large doll with golden hair). There is an emotional score that reminded me at times of the ‘realist melodramas’ associated with Rossellini. The camerawork is actually quite conventional and the film doesn’t have a particular style (causing the usual problems for some critics who seem to think that a lack of obvious stylistic features means that it is a ‘made for TV’ movie). The sheer emotional content of the story forces the actors into what I would term ‘melodrama mode’ and it is this and the musical score that contrasts with some of the scenes which deal with the bureaucratic nightmares of the apartheid system (and post-apartheid bureaucracy) which suggest melodrama most strongly – and which otherwise might have pushed the film towards ‘social realism’. I should say that there are also some very funny moments in the script which again relieve the sense of trudging through a ‘social issue narrative’.
The film is also a melodrama because it focuses specifically on the emotional relationships between Sandra and her mother and father and the ‘significant others’ in her life (not to give away the plot). Although this is a true story (with some fictionalised additions) it isn’t a conventional biopic. There are plenty of things about Sandra’s life that we don’t see, instead her ‘story’ becomes the basis of a specific emotional drama about identity.
Reading some of the audience comments from the very well-received screenings at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, I can see that I wasn’t the only one weeping through much of the last third of the film. The audience in Bradford was a good one for a film with so little publicity and I got the impression that they were as taken with the film as we were – which begs the question, “Why did no major distributor want to take on the film?”
As well as the truly wonderful Sophie Okonedo (surely up for more awards on the strength of this performance), the film stars Sam Neill as the father. These are two known Hollywood names you would expect would help to get the film a release. Screen International has suggested that recent South African apartheid-set stories (such as Goodbye Bafana, 2007) have been viewed as box-office poison. The background to Skin is quite different to that of recent Hollywood excursions into South Africa. Writer/director Anthony Fabian has been determined to make the story of Sandra Laing’s experiences for some time. He’s a UK-based director, born in the US and brought up in Mexico and France. I realise that I first became aware of him through one of his documentaries, Township Opera (2002) which he made for BBC4. The story of an opera group from the South African townships and its eventual success in giving London performances was most enjoyable. That film was a joint production between the BBC and Fabian’s own company Elysian Films.
Skin appears to be a completely independent production between Elysian and some smaller South African companies. There is a good deal of background on the very useful Elysian Films website. If you want to find out how the film got made, I highly recommend the site. It also offers a short film about the real Sandra and shows extracts from the ‘promo film’ that Fabian made as part of the sales pitch for the film. As with the Sophie Scholl film I mentioned earlier, the theatrical rights to Skin were bought by ICA Projects which has released the film on just two or three prints (the poor quality digital print we saw was, I assume, not a true representation of the 35mm original). The Elysian Films website lists showings at one cinema per week through to October in various venues, some quite small. I obviously support the rights of people in Tewkesbury to see the film, but Skin should be available in every UK city – it’s a film that deserves to be seen. It’s quite ironic that it should get a limited release just as District 9 hits UK cinemas. I suspect I’m one of the few people to see both films in a two week period.
See also the film’s own website.
Outline (no spoilers)
When an alien spacecraft arrives over Joannesburg, the locals resist the urge to attempt to blow it out of the sky and eventually they discover thousands of malnourished creatures seemingly trapped in the craft. The aliens are brought down and housed in a temporary camp in ‘District 9’ of the city. Several years later the authorities, increasingly alarmed by the growth of the alien population and the potential for civil unrest that contact between aliens and humans is creating, decide to move the aliens to a new ‘settlement’ outside the city. The contract for organising the move is awarded to a faceless private corporation, MNU.
This is a fascinating film if you are interested in science fiction and horror as genres. Everyone is playing spot the references and I’d go back as far as the ‘creature features’ of the mid 1950s (Them, Creature from the Back Lagoon, The Fly and The Incredible Shrinking Man – Philip French identifies Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the first Quatermass movie and the latter is a good call, I think), then on to the revival of some of those films (e.g. The Fly) in the ‘body horror’ period of the 1980s. More recently, the film echoes action films like Iron Man. Then there are the elements from the alien invasion movies with spaceships hovering above the Earth. There is also a link to the satirical use of aliens as giant ‘bugs’ in Starship Troopers, but this time via the kind of documentary approach utilised in Cloverfield. A film I was reminded of a lot is the wonderful Korean monster picture, The Host (2007) which shares several themes with District 9 and even some actual scenarios (e.g. in the operating theatre). There is a direct connection as well as both films feature creatures created by the Weta Workshop in New Zealand.
Science fiction and horror are often close to each other when dealing with narratives like this. District 9 was sometimes more like body horror for me, but that’s possibly because as a squeamish viewer, I often feel revulsion from alien representations. Having said that, the aliens in District 9, the ‘prawns’, eventually become quite sympathetic creatures and I was rooting for them by the end. Before that though, their behaviour is pretty anti-social from a human point of view. This is quite clever in a scripting sense since it suggests that a) these are carnivorous aliens with different attitudes towards flesh-eating and b) that any sentient creatures forced to live in squalor will begin to behave in ‘uncivilised’ ways. In other words, we as an audience are required to think about our relationship to creatures that are both different and also similar to ourselves.
Perhaps the most important difference between this narrative and the ‘action spectaculars’ such as Iron Man, is that District 9 is mostly played ‘straight’ – although I did find the opening irritating with its sense of ‘reality TV’ and a hero who at first seems like a cross between a South African Alan Partridge and David Brent. He gets a lot better as the film moves on and the actor (Sharlto Copley) has been highly praised by critics and popular audiences alike. Too many action pictures are tongue-in-cheek. The best genre pictures are played ‘for real’ and I think that is the case here. The sense of authenticity is also helped by not having the leads played by recognisable Hollywood faces – a real problem for so many South African movies destined for international markets.
Of course, the big question about the film concerns what is achieved by mixing all these familiar elements in a narrative set in Johannesburg, the home city of writer/director Neill Blomkamp? Most reviewers seem to think that the opportunity isn’t really taken up as much as it might be. Pushing the responsibility for removing the aliens onto a private company might be quite realistic, but it doesn’t offer us the interesting dilemma of an ANC leader explaining the policy to the world’s media. The authenticity of the setting does work however and it seemed to me that the film was ‘South African’ in its feel for the environment in the same way that Gavin Hood successfully represents the townships in Tsotsi. Younger viewers may not be aware that the scenes of eviction of the aliens are shot to mirror exactly the ‘clearance’ of illegal settlements under the apartheid regime.
You could perhaps argue that Blomkamp is even-handed in making the ‘bad guys’ brutish Afrikaners and Nigerians, but there have already been complaints from some quarters about the depictions of the Nigerians. I’m not sure about this representation at all. Here’s a useful blog entry followed by a range of comments. I’m interested in the comment on the blog which mentions the Nigerian movies made in South Africa and therefore the suggestion that there is competition between South African and Nigerian filmmakers. I also note comments that see the Nigerians as standing in for the range of refugees from countries like Zimbabwe who have suffered from aggression after their arrival in South Africa. All the same, it is a brave (white) director who offers us images of superstitious/cannibalistic Nigerians as gangsters. Certainly there are Nigerian gangsters at large in many parts of the world, but I suggest that the filmmaker needs to be more clear about how he expects audiences to read his satire/allegory.
So, the film risks being seen as racist at the same time as it satirises the post-apartheid treatment of refugees in the RSA. Another problem is associated with one of several plot holes/confusions. What do we actually learn about the social structure of the aliens? How does gender work in their social system and what kind of class system do they have? We do discover something about the ‘hatching’ of eggs, but did I miss something about ‘queens’ or other females? Are most of the aliens drones – with only a couple of high order males who can fly the spacecraft?
Overall, this is an interesting film that probably tries to do too much and possibly gets tangled up in political and social issues it isn’t quite sure how to handle. Nevertheless it is worth watching and studying. Although it is distributed by Sony, it’s clearly a global film with a South African director trained in Canada and a film shot in South Africa with effects and post-production work in New Zealand. (It’s produced by Peter Jackson, but I’m not sure how important his contribution was.)
Here’s the short film that Neill Blomkamp made in 2005 and which he then expanded to make as District 9: