Dirty alien shadow-selves:

Delving into the dirt in District 9

  • Cheryl Stobie
Keywords: Dirt, synthetic dirt, District 9;, aliens, science fiction, relational form


Beginning with a discussion of the concept of dirt, including synthetic dirt, as contextualised by film critic Peter Brook, I raise pertinent ideas from the work of Nicolas Bourriaud about contemporary visual art. I then move on to an analysis of the representation of literal and synthetic dirt within the science fiction film District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp (2009). Using Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s work on the implications of the significance of the encounter with the alien as the ultimate contact zone between self and other, I concentrate on the physical, emotional and aesthetic effects achieved as the central 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 anthropologist Mary Douglas. The viewer’s responses are shown to be complex and muddy, composed of warring impulses of revulsion and admiration. As the central character, Wikus, becomes an alien his body becomes a rich symbolic ground. His increasingly leaky, abject body reflects 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.