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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Pascale

The Art of the Lo-Fi Narrative: In Nebraska and District 9

The first film I intend to discuss is the editing of one of the initial scenes of District 9 by Neill Blomkamp, written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. The film stars Shallot Copley, Jason Cope, and David James. The scene is set up as a prologue to the story in the form of a mockumentary. The plot follows the main character who has been infected by an alien capsule, and who eventually will turn into an alien. However, the prologue to the story is filmed in a unique way. The editing transitions cuts between the district immigration department of South Africa for extra-terrestrial life and District 9, a sector of the city where aliens have been cordoned off. The paper will analyze how the prologue cut scene is the overture of the film. The film came out in 2009 and uses up-to-date animation and filming techniques to create a science fiction drama.

The overture prologue is created by using deliberate cuts and edits and splices to provide a narrative of a dystopian world. The reason this film is so remarkable is, at the time, the internet was flooded with low-grade documentary footage with a similar visual look. This film played off the internet/YouTube investigative journalism culture to create a movie that plays with social consciousness left over from Apartheid, as District 9 is a modern-day segregated state. It is inspired by events that happened in District Six, in Cape Town. The film was released during the beginning of Occupy Wall Street movement, which at the time was flooding the internet with individual self-made journalistic documentaries and vlogs. This film was inspired by the reaction to Peter Joseph’s, Zeitgeist.

The opening feels gritty and news-like. The Kuleshov Effect is used to make the film appear in a series of montages, and it gives the sense of an individual journalist doing an expose. The film exposes the government’s imprisonment of the alien population in District 9. The editing uses many jump cuts, interview clips, and surveillance videos that splice together to form a deceptive narrative. All this is fast-paced, to appeal to emotion and create fear in the viewer. The interviews are not tightly scripted, and so create the sense of news interviews. They also serve as creating misinformation and misconception about what happened.

While the scene shifts back and forth between District 9 and interviews with humans, you see the mothership hovering above District 9. The editing uses the Kuleshov Effect which is exclusively a right-wing journalistic tactic on the internet. For example, the Planned Parenthood tapes or organ selling, or Breitbart’s “fake news” headlines. All these techniques serve to make this science fiction film feel like investigative reporting.

District 9 (2009) – “Scene 1 Opening” presented by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Bomkamp

This initial scene in District 9 starts off with a gritty camera shoot and what looks like to be hand-held footage. The sense of it is a documentary or exposure that is reporting heightens the tension when the film introduces the Prawns (the aliens’ race). It feels authentic and menacing. It was an original approach to science fiction films, and it worked well. Since District 9 release I haven't seen the science fiction film open the same way since.

The next film I will analyze is Nebraska directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson. It stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, and Bob Odenkirk. I am analyzing the scene when Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) convinces his son he must go to Nebraska to receive his sweepstakes winning, which is clearly a scam.

Nebraska (2013) “Why Don't You Take Me" Bruce Dern” scene directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson

The film is shot in black and white and is bleak in nature. The mise-en-scene of this scene includes a sense of this is a town, somewhere in America. The scene shows when Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) walking along a highway. This son David Grant (Will Forte) is running after his father, trying to convince him he cannot leave by himself, and Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) insists that he still can make his own decisions. It’s clear that he cannot. The black and white filming, along with the sparse dialogue creates a sense of days gone by and the understated culture of the Midwest. The background music alternates between a solo acoustic guitar or banjo music. It is recorded on a tape recorder and digitized. The filming of it is reminiscent of a 1950’s home-movie. It takes the element of small-town life with small gatherings in local bars or diners or homes. It is a film that has quiet dialogue, with short sentences and brief exchanges. People struggle to connect.

The gaps in dialogue fill the backspace of the story, leaving the viewer with a feeling of melancholy atmosphere. It is a road trip between a father and son, who never really talked or bonded. The non-verbal communication is clear from this initial scene and never resolves. This is who these characters are. They do not experience transformation and return to Woody’s hometown to retrieve a prize that is not legitimate.

The scene shows Woody hobbling down a highway, looking confused and alone. His son, David, (Will Forte) is running after him. The two have not formed a close relationship and that seems clear in the sparse dialogue between them. Woody is determined that he will get his prize money and he will do it by going alone, walking on foot if he must, to Lincoln, Nebraska. They are dressed in “regular guy” clothing, and Woody looks unshaven and doesn’t care about how he looks. He is old and ready to throw it all away for a chance to gamble on an idea.

The two films have several themes and techniques in common, even if they appear very different from the first view. Both directors use unconventional ways to shoot these stories. In District 9, the gritty, hand-held news style creates a “realistic” expose, while in Nebraska, the black-and-white shooting and quiet dialogue give a sense of a story from a home movie. This is real. This is America. This is District 9. The narratives are very different, but the directors are both looking for different visual effects that create a unique film, not a glossy and not high-tech Hollywood film.

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