The Elephant Man meets District 9

As we watched and discussed the Elephant Man two weeks ago, I remembered the story of another movie I had watched in a seminar before. The seminar is about South African literature and apartheid. Therefore we watched the movie District 9, which whole story you can read here. To cut a long story short, it’s about aliens who live in some kind of ghetto, the District 9, in Johannesburg, but should be deported to another district far outside the city, because of beginning riots between humans and aliens. A group of men, who are led by Wikus van de Merwe, are sent to District 9 to force the aliens to sign eviction notices to relocate them. During this task Wikus gets contaminated by some alien liquid. A few hours later, his arm, which had contact with the fluid, turns into an alien arm (which makes him able to use the aliens’ weapons, which are only usable with alien-DNA). As a result, Wikus becomes ‘national property’ and is examined to find out more about the aliens’ usage of weapons.

In this point I saw a really important parallel to The Elephant Man. Both men become totally objectified and are no longer seen as humans. Like Merrick, Wikus gets institutionalized and no longer has any right of self-determination. Nobody talks to him anymore; he is only seen as an object from which the government could benefit. Even his death would be accepted (by his own father-in-law) to profit by his DNA and making the government able to use the aliens’ weapons. There you can see another parallel to the Elephant Man’s life, because he was dissected, examined and exhibited as soon as he died.

Unlike the Elephant Man, Wikus succeeds to escape from the hospital, but he is then showcased as contagious and ‘abnormal’ on television, so that the people on the streets don’t see his human side anymore and don’t help him with his escape. Without even talking to him to get to know more about his transformation, the government makes a ‘freak’ out of Wikus.

Like the Elephant Man, Wikus is afraid of his own sight and tries everything to become ‘normal’ again. He even tries to cut off the ‘abnormal’ part of himself, but realizes that it is also a part of his body and that it belongs to him.

Wikus also tries to contact his wife all the time, so we get to know that he has still the same ‘human’ feelings as before. Even if he doesn’t look the same as before or as other people, he is still the same man.

Of course, I watched this movie in my course in terms of apartheid; you simply have to replace ‘alien’ by ‘black’ and you will get the story about the relationship between Blacks and Whites during the years of apartheid. But nevertheless, it’s a movie about the ‘Other’, of which humans are afraid of and so I think it’s also relevant for this course. Due to his transformation, Wikus is no longer seen as a normal human, even though it’s just one part of him, which differs obviously from the ‘normal’ body. Like in the story of the Elephant Man, a different appearance of the body seems to convert a person into something ‘abnormal’, which has to be kept at bay from the public life. But as one can see in those two films, Wikus and Merrick have the same feelings as other people and are therefore not different from others, even if they might look different.

One Response to The Elephant Man meets District 9

  1. An interesting comparison. What especially struck me is the fear of “contamination,” which is often used to justify quarantining or segregating parts of the population deemed dangerous to public health. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, for example, there were numerous proposals (some even implemented) in the USA and Europe to quarantine those who were HIV-positive. While Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” did not have a contagious condition, his existence outside of the medical context was also seen as a threat to society, particularly to morality. Likewise, apartheid (or segregation in the USA) was also connected to a hygiene discourse–segregation was supposed to maintain both the moral and biological “purity” of white society. In District 9, it seems, this metaphor is made literal in the contamination of Wikus.

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