“All I want is to eat that arm and become like you”, DISTRICT 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

Back in 2009, fifteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa seemed to be the obvious place to make movies that offered clear metaphors about racism and xenophobia. Today, they’d probably be filmed in Minneapolis, but nonetheless, after more than ten years, this movie works just as well, perhaps even better in this time, when people have to fight for their lives against both racism and an invasive disease.

DISTRICT 9 is directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson), and set in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is presented as “found footage” – fictional news stories, CCTV and interviews. District 9 is an internment camp for aliens – not from across the border or across the ocean, but across the universe. A giant UFO hovers above the city showing no signs of life, and when the authorities cut their way inside they find it is full of diseased and starving aliens, who look, as Roger Ebert said, like two metre tall lobsters. They are brought to land and housed in a secure area – District 9 – where they recover, and cause havoc with their love of wrecking stuff and eating lots of cat food.

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Yes, it’s not without humour. There are “interviews” with people of different races, all saying that these aliens – now known universally as “prawns” – should be sent home or else taken out of the city, away from human contact. Resettlement camp, detention centre, ghetto – those who are different can be separated with just some pernicious circumlocution.

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The movie follows Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a naïve and nerdy mid-level executive in a huge multi-national corporation called MNU (it stands for Multi National United), which supplies mercenaries for just such situations.

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Wikus heads off with his army and a clipboard, believing that he is going to knock on doors and ask the “prawns” to agree to be moved to a new camp, whereas of course the whole process is aimed at intimidation and terrorising of the populace.

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Searching one building, he finds a tube of alien fuel, which they have been synthesising for twenty years, planning an escape. He opens it, and it sprays all over him.

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Soon, he starts metamorphosing into a “prawn” – his hand turns into an alien claw, and his teeth and nails start to fall out. This is obviously a big problem – actually two. First, his company, MNU, wants to cut him up and study his organs, desperate to learn how to transmute others, because the aliens have immensely powerful weapons that will only operate in the hands of someone with alien DNA. He escapes back to District 9, pursued by the sadistic head of the corporation’s private army, who personifies white supremacist violence.

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Back in District 9, Wikus is captured by a Nigerian criminal gang, who make their fortune from the aliens, selling them cat food, and offering interspecies prostitution (delicately presented). The Nigerians’ leader, whose name is taken from that of a former President of Nigeria, also wants to control those weapons, and believes eating Wikus’ arm will make him part alien as well. Why not just eat a prawn? Oh, they’ve tried that.

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The trope of cannibals taking on the strengths of those they eat has been around pretty much forever. It is used to explain both mortuary cannibalism, where the strength of the ancestors is passed to the descendants through their flesh, and also aggressive cannibalism where the legs of the fastest enemy, or the testicles – you get the idea. It revolves around the idea that “you are what you eat”, but if you believe that, well, what does that say about the trolls who love to write “But BACON!” on vegan social media sites?

The film was shot around Johannesburg, and the squalid hovels shown were in an area of Soweto that was being demolished and the people relocated. The story is based on the true case of District Six in Capetown, where 60,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s by the apartheid regime. But finding a parallel story of forced removals of oppressed populations would not be difficult in most of the world’s nations. A reviewer wrote in an article entitled “District 9 reveals human inhumanity”:

“Substitute “black,” “Asian,” “Mexican,” “illegal,” “Jew,” or any number of different labels for the word “prawn” in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue, echoing what we historically as a species are all too capable of doing.”

Several different facets of cannibalism are presented in District 9. The Nigerians eat “prawns” – is that cannibalism, or if not, what about their plan to eat Wikus as he transforms into a prawn? The big corporation is only interested in the billions of dollars that will come from working out how to operate the alien weapons, and are ready and willing to sacrifice Wikus and use his body parts in pursuit of this goal. The aliens are tall and powerful (pulling people limb from limb in a few scenes) and look a bit reminiscent of the creatures from the Alien movie franchise, even though they don’t eat each other or the humans; but  they are keen on meat from other species like pigs and goats and whoever ends up in the slurry called cat food.

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The formal definition of cannibalism tries to restrict the definition to humans eating humans, but it is always leaking out the sides. What we see in this film is the way that anyone can be abused, objectified and even eaten if they can be reclassified as inhuman or subhuman. Wikus starts the story happy to burn down shacks full of alien eggs, enjoying the sound of the eggs bursting, which sounds like popcorn. Captured by the corporation and made to operate alien weapons, he is happy to destroy pigs but begs not to be made to shoot the aliens. Later, turning into a “prawn”, he is more than happy to use the alien weapons to blow apart various soldiers of his former employer, to protect the prawns. The irony of this film is that Wikus, who is a fully carnophallogocentric human in the terms used by Derrida (“adult white male, European, carnivorous and capable of sacrifice”), only finds his humanity when he begins morphing into something else and becomes one of the outsiders he previously disdained.

It’s well worth seeing – if you don’t dig the message, then there’s plenty of action scenes, car chases and explosions. Some unintended explosions after the movie, too, when the Nigerian Information Minister asked cinemas to ban the film because it depicted Nigerians as criminals and cannibals. Not the first time white people have applied those epithets against Africans, and the film also scored a mention in Salon’s list of “white saviour” movies, since Wikus is white, and desperate to remain so. But the Malawian actor, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, who played the gang leader, said that the Nigerians in the cast weren’t bothered: “It’s a story, you know. It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place.” Sensible, but not a great look for a film that is slamming racist stereotypes through the metaphor of speciesism.

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The direction is adroit and the story buzzes along with never a dull moment. The acting is first rate, even the guys in the alien suits become sympathetic characters, and the special effects are first rate. The film has a 90% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s available on Netflix.

Would you like virus with that? EBOLA SYNDROME (伊波拉病毒) (Herman Yau, 1996)

Director Herman Yau has made a bit of a career from telling stories of “innocent cannibalism”, in which diners in restaurants unknowingly eat human flesh. His 1993 film The Untold Story was based on the “Eight Immortals Restaurant murders” of a family of ten, which took place in August 1985 in Macau. Portions of the bodies were never found, leading to speculation – yeah, you got it.

Following Gordon Gecko’s statement that “greed is good!” in Wall Street (1987), the 1990s saw a spate of films about entrepreneurs selling human flesh for fun and profit. Beside The Untold Story, Untold Story II and Ebola Syndrome from Hong Kong, we saw Delicatessen from France, Aranyak from India, The Deathmaker from Germany, Perdita Durango from Mexico, while the Americans contributed Ice Cream Man and Fried Green Tomatoes.

You see what I’m up against, trying to update you on all these masterpieces?

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This film gets even weirder, because there is also a pandemic involved – Ebola, the so-called “flesh-eating” disease. Ebola never really got the public going like COVID-19, maybe because it only affected people in places like the Congo and so did not keep the rest of us awake at night. Also, it spreads much more slowly but, if you do get it, you have a 50-90% chance of dying, and it isn’t “just” pneumonia – it is haemorrhagic, meaning that you can bleed out “through your wazoo”, as they say in Last Man on Earth.

“People with Ebola first have symptoms of influenza, but within 72 hours after infection, the virus will dissolve the internal organs”

Ah Kai (Anthony Wong) is an escaped criminal from Hong Kong who bolts to South Africa after killing his former boss, his boss’s wife and another employee. Here is an image showing Hong Kong industrial relations in action.

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In South Africa, he works at a Chinese restaurant and one day travels with his boss to a Zulu tribe that is infected with the Ebola virus [NOTE: there is no record of Ebola among the Zulu]. He comes across a woman dying of the disease, and decides to rape her – he’s that sort of guy.

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He is immune to the effects of the virus, so becomes a living carrier, spreading the disease to others through his bodily fluids. He kills his new boss and his boss’s wife and cousin (seems to be becoming a habit), but he has already given the virus to them, so when he cuts up their corpses and serves them as hamburgers in the restaurant, he spreads the virus all over South Africa.

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He heads back to Hong Kong with the boss’ cash and moves into a fancy hotel, where he proceeds to spreads the virus to the prostitutes he hires, and everyone else he encounters – dramatic music accompanying each new infection.

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Cannibalism as a carrier for pandemics seems apposite right now. Cannibalism and incest, Freud said, were the two great taboos of civilisation, but their prohibitions also define civilisation, so it is not unreasonable to expect at least one of them to pop up in a civilisation-wide disaster. COVID-19 hasn’t been spread by cannibalism yet, or incest (as far as we know) but this movie looks at more than just crime and disease as social disrupters. Ah Kai is aggressive and violent to anyone whom he believes bullies him, usually the rich people who take advantage of his fugitive status. In South Africa (not a place known for Ebola), he is subject to casual racism from the whites, including prostitutes who refuse him their services. The whites, he complains, treat him like a black, and the blacks treat him like a white. He and his victims are dehumanised, which is a precondition for cannibalism – humans are animalised, animals are objectified and become meat.

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Chinese restaurants, where he works, use a lot of pork, and several scenes problematise the close proximity of pigs to humans in the way they look and, according to some informants, the way they taste. The Ebola is caught at a Zulu camp where multiple people are dying from it; Kai and his boss are there because the racist white butcher is charging too much for pigs.

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When they go to pick up their purchases, Kai uncovers human bodies instead, before he finds the pig corpses.

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Is there really such a difference between corpses? More than 75% of emerging diseases originate in other animals. COVID-19 is said to have originated at a fish market, where close contact between humans and live animals in a small space made it easy for the virus to jump species. Other coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), not to mention bird flu and swine flu, all spread due to the human appetite for flesh.

We used to assume that exotic diseases came from wilderness areas where they had been hosted in exotic animals, which then, like the dying Zulu, were used and abused by humans. But a lot of current research seems to indicate that it is actually our destruction of habitat and biodiversity that causes the spread of diseases like Ebola and COVID-19.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

David Quammen in the New York Times January 28, 2020

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Really?

Dread Central summed up the movie:

“The horrid acting and paper thin story are forgivable only for the hilarity with which it’s presented.”

That’s a bit harsh! Chinese movies are not as a rule exemplars of subtlety, but Anthony Wong as the virus super-spreader gives it all he’s got, and a bit more too. It’s a rollicking yarn, and it asks some serious questions too. I was surprised to find I quite enjoyed it.

The full movie can be watched at: