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District 9: Films and Nigeria’s image issues

For a film set in South Africa with a largely South African cast, it would have been an African pride but for its portrayal of…

For a film set in South Africa with a largely South African cast, it would have been an African pride but for its portrayal of Africans and particularly Nigeria. Nigerians were portrayed as scammers, hard core criminals, inter-specie prostitutes and worst of all, cannibals. And the gang leader just happened to be named “Obasanjo”.

The film, produced by Sony Pictures, was directed by Neill Blomkamp and stars Sharlto Copley in the lead. An alien ship arrives Johannesburg and the malnourished aliens are camped in a slum called District 9. After 20 years, they manage to constitute themselves into a nuisance, provoking mass violence against them. Efforts to relocate the aliens to another settlement result in the top agent responsible for the operation to come in contact with alien technology that will begin transforming him into one of the much loathed aliens (or prawns as they are called).

For Nigerians, there is another dimension. In the slum, there is a Nigerian compound, where a group of Nigerians led by ‘Obasanjo’ run a crime syndicate that exploits the aliens and occasionally eat them so as to gain supernatural powers. There are also Nigerian prostitutes who have ‘inter-specie’ intercourse with the aliens – and these aliens are really, really hideous.

The highlight of these barbarity is when Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley)’s arm starts developing claws exactly like that of the aliens. Obasanjo acquires a huge appetite for it and goes to every length just to eat it. “All I want is to eat that arm,” he said laughing sadistically.

But for many Nigerians, that is not a laughing matter. “We feel very bad about this because the film clearly denigrated Nigeria’s image by portraying us as if we are cannibals,” Nigeria’s minister of communications, Prof. Dora Akunyili had said after watching the film. She went ahead to demand an unreserved apology from the film’s producers and called on them to review the film and remove all offending scenes. She also directed the national film and videos censor’s board to ban and confiscate the film.


Precedence

District 9 is not the first film to raise a furore among Nigerians. In 2003, the film, Tears of the Sun, featuring Bruce Willis and Monica Belluci came under intense scrutiny for its depiction of a future genocidal war in Nigeria. The government at the time said nothing and the few disgruntled critics took their pot-shots on local newspaper pages. They gradually simmered into silence.


Artistic license?

There was a fundamental misconception in Tears of the Sun which was that the Igbos have a central kingdom that was hereditary. The film focused on an attempt to decapitate the Igbo nation by eliminating the royal family’s sole survivor. The intervention of some crack American troops who rescued the sole heir to the Igbo throne ensured that this did not happen.

Ignorance or artistic licence may have been responsible for creating that scenario. The concept of kings in the historically gerontocratic Igbo nation only came with the colonialists who appointed a plethora of local chiefs to help them collect taxes.

District 9 is not without flaws in its storyline. How could a race of aliens who have the technology to travel across galaxies turn out no better than wild things scavenging refuse heaps and delighting in torching buildings and derailing trains quite like savages? They don’t even understand basic concepts – yet they have a technology that is far more advanced than the humans’.

There have been suggestions that the film is a veiled depiction of apartheid and the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa. This has not endeared the film to a lot of people either who have found reasons to complain about the film’s artistic and social content. In recent weeks, the film has lost popularity by as much as 15% according to the Internet Movie Data Base.

And for the Nigerians who particularly take offence with the film’s content and particularly their depiction as cannibals among other things, the man who played Obasanjo in the film, Malawian actor, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, thinks it is not as serious as they make it out to be. “It’s a story, you know. It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place,” he had told the BBC in a chat.


More than Just a story

This is more than just a story. It is a matter of perception. Today, many people hold the United States and Americans in the highest esteem without ever having been to the country. Their perception of America’s greatness has been acquired through Hollywood blockbusters even when sometimes the reality is quite different.

If District 9 portrays Nigerians in that light, perhaps that is the way the film makers perceive the country. Nigeria has had a lot to do polishing its image as a breeding ground for scammers, drug traffickers and a leading supplier of prostitutes to the European sex industry.

This aspect of life in Africa’s most populous country is daily depicted in local films. Themes of portent witchery, crime and prostitution are prevalent in Nollywood films that are viewed all over Africa on Africa Magic.

Even in contemporary Nigerian literature the story is not really different. Recently, Nigerian writer, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani won the Commonwealth Writers Prize Africa region for a book (I Do Not Come to You by Chance) which tells the story of Nigerian email scammers. Chika Unigwe’s novel (On Black Sisters’ Street) follows the army of Nigerian prostitutes servicing the sex industry in Belgium.

This brings to question how the Nigerians actually perceive themselves. Khumbanyiwa is quick to point out that the Nigerians on the cast of the controversial film did not complain about the depiction of their country.

The lesson for a country with the potential of Nigeria is that you have to take the lead in projecting your image the way you want to be seen before expecting others to follow suit – just like the Americans have done.

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