Neill Blomkamp

Lo Fi Sci Fi – a name derived from “Low Fidelity” and “Science Fiction”, meant to convey the impression of filmed science fiction created by amateurs or on a very limited budget. I don’t know who first coined the term, but I first encountered it in the ad campaign for the Toronto based independent film Infest Wisely, and thought it described a movement I’ve been seeing quite a bit of lately. Science Fiction as a literary genre has always been composed of enthusiastic amateurs writing primarily for themselves and each other as an audience. Science fiction cinema has always suffered in thematic substance as it has generally been made by commercial interested non-fans targeting a mass audience. In general this has meant employing a heavy coat of science fictional eye-candy to recycled western, war and horror movie plots. Actual thematic as opposed to visual science fiction in film has been rare, but the Lo Fi Sci Fi movement, now that the tools to make convincing amateur science fiction films are widely available, is starting to change all that. In posts of this category I’ll be reviewing films or filmmakers I feel fit into the Lo Fi Sci Fi movement.

The first Neill Blomkamp short I encountered was Tetra Vaal:

Structured like an industrial advertisement, using a hand held, verite camera style, with what sounds like improvised, completely authentic narration and carefully integrated, subtle and beautiful effects, this short is utterly convincing. In about a minute and forty seconds, it’s more satisfying science fiction than most full features I’ve seen. In it’s short running time it manages to pack in a realistic feeling high concept – a robot police officer, but not a Peter Weller style robocop, rather an ambulatory, semi autonomous gun platform for use in locales that are hostile to police presence. The fact that it seems not designed to mitigate the hostility, but rather, unconcerned with hostility and only designed to decrease the physical hazard to police themselves, regardless of what I can’t help but see as implied increased hazard to the policed, manages also to include a humanistic and political theme, and to raise questions left artfully unanswered. I’ve watched this short repeatedly. It’s perfect.

So, who is Neill Blomkamp? Wikipedia lists him as a South African born, Vancouver, BC-based director of short films and advertisements. IMDB lists several projects he’s involved in.

One of them was at one point a film version of the Halo video game. It looks like that has gone by the wayside, but when it was first announced he was interviewed by Ain’t it Cool and he had this to say about his motivations for making his short films:

I have to be doing something creative all the time, I like just rolling up my sleeves and just making stuff, for the sake of learning, or experimenting, or messing around, shorts can be better than pretty much anything for that. Commercials I was beginning to find uncreative because your end goal is to sell a product, and music videos are really great, but you can’t really have dialogue, so I just defaulted to making my own pieces on the side of doing commercials, and ironically they seem better known then all the commercials, except that one for Adidas which was basically a short.

Which Adidas commercial? This one:

This spot, Yellow, shows a clear influence from cyborg themed anime, especially the classic Ghost in the Shell, which itself was also one of the influences the Wachowski brothers riffed on in the Matrix films. Unlike the Wachowski’s, Blomkamp in this short demonstrates a much deeper understanding of the philosophical substance that underlies that anime subgenre. The Matrix movies play off visuals from the same source, but never seem to comprehend the existential questions that animate those visuals. Blomkamp in Yellow employs both the questions and some of the key visuals with deft economy, and manages to communicate more substance in 4 minutes than the Wachowskis did in over 4 hours.

Two other tools in evidence here that you can see in all of Blomkamp’s shorts:

  1. Naturalistic, extemporaneous sounding narration and dialog that just really pushes the reality of patently fantastic visuals. It’s the way he records human voices and works them into his pieces, more than the visuals, that makes them feel like documentaries, and gives you the sense of watching actual events unfold. Yellow is probably the most structurally dramatic of all of the one’s I’m reviewing here, the one that is most formulaic, but it’s the narration that saves it from cliche.
  2. Skilled use of functional workplace locations and real environments, with telling close ups. There is a shot on what appears to be a meat processing floor where a man cuts a chicken leg off with a knife. It’s quick and serves both the establish a reality grounded setting and point up increasing danger as police are closing in on the Yellow android. It also suggests a grim outlook on the place of flesh in a world where thinking machines are possible. It’s an expertly placed, multivalent visual, and the employment of such visuals is one of Blomkamp’s primary strengths.

To my mind, his definitive piece is the alien refugee/apartheid documentary Alive in Joburg:

This is just beautiful on so many levels. At 6.5 minutes it’s the longest of these shorts, but absolutely every second is packed with layered significance. It really feels like a full story. Every new fact you learn about the situation comes by watching consequences and actions in media res.

Also on full display here is the effectiveness of his choice to make the setting for his science fiction something other than the traditional western world. Much like the written work of Ian McDonald, Blomkamp uses the people and culture of South Africa here to discover new thematic territory in the old story of flying saucers over our cities. His saucers aren’t conquerors, they are desperate refugees. The cities they’ve parked over aren’t in a world power capable of expelling them by force. So everyone now has to deal with a very awkward situation, how to divide resources and maintain social stability among a genuinely volatile mix of need and custom. Africans, Afrikaans and Aliens; how do these three groups reconcile competing imperatives. It’s really quite a stroke of genius, throwing the familiar struggle over equality and power between the African and Dutch descended populations of South Africa into new, uncomfortable shapes. This twist alone makes the film deserve an even fuller treatment.

We are in luck, as it appears that is what it is going to get; IMDB shows an August 14th, 2009 projected release date for District 9. Here is some kid on youtube doing a pretty thorough walkthrough off all the viral advertising that has been accumulating around District 9, which is an expanded version of Alive in Joburg:

Neill Blomkamp in this short and commercial work has already produced a substantial body of quality filmed science fiction, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can achieve at a full feature length runtime.

I include him in the category of Lo Fi Sci Fi despite his comparatively large budgets and professional connections because his primary output up until now has been experimental shorts released primarily online and making excellent use of techniques available to even very low budget filmmakers. Quality on this order is well within reach of amateurs, and we now also have Neill showing us how to do it. May many follow in his footsteps!

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Bill became odd after surviving a long series of mentally destabilizing encounters with Numinous Memetic Entities. He likes to curse, and considers evocative vulgarity to be the last remaining genuine form of poetry left to the human heart.

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