Film companion Stateless

Created by: Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie
Starring: Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Asher Keddie and Fayssal Bazzi
Streaming on: Netflix

For our very first family overseas vacation, we went to Malaysia. It was in May of 2010; I was almost 12 years old. Instead of the usual course to the domestic airport – from where our destination mainly used to be my hometown Lucknow- we had to reach the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (lest i say it any other way) International Airport this time. Apart from the markedly more glistening premises of the airport in comparison to its domestic counterpart, immigration was an added procedure here before boarding the flight. An immigration counter is quite literally where a country ends or begins, depending on whether you are departing or arriving. For the uninitiated, your papers are assessed, your photograph is captured and an exit stamp is provided at the immigration counter. Hereafter, until you reach your destined airport, you are virtually in no man’s land, in a paradoxical state on a flight that is flying over seas. What if you were to perpetually be in this state? Let me raise the stakes to evoke more worry. What if you officially belonged to no state (nation) as such; stranded in the middle of where you started from and where you wished to be?

Before getting into Stateless – an emotionally captivating snapshot of border laws in Australia – let me share an interesting anecdote from the aforementioned overseas vacation. We had planned to visit Singapore for a day by road. The border control between the two countries is so lenient, that we thought of entering Singapore without a valid visa. Trust me when I say that intentions were not to break any laws. Unfortunately, we were ill-informed about visa-on-arrival terms and conditions. Upon reaching the immigration counter in Singapore, we were better informed. Alas, it was too late.

What was supposed to be a minute and a half at the counter, turned to be an arduous hour and a half with the immigration department. An African officer politely escorted us to their office. At the office, people from various nationalities waiting for clearance of their cases. A European lady unable to convey her history in English to her rude Chinese case officer; an East Asian family sleeping carelessly as if this was daily routine to them. Only if they had woken up at any point, I could and would have asked them which country did they actually belong to or what their story was. And then the Indian family (us), petrified but hopeful of going back to Malaysia soon. Note – The room was not very crowded, but the folks at immigration were purposefully taking their own sweet time to take up each case, as if marinating the offenders in their own guilt, fear and/or desperation to go back home. Eventually, we narrated our case to the above-mentioned rude Chinese officer. Laws were explained and they sent us packing in a bus full of such offenders of border laws. This experience taught me very early on in life that immigration and border rules are significantly variable and more complex than meets the eye.

Set in Barton (a suburb of Canberra) for its major part, Stateless is a story of four different lives intersecting at a refugee detention center in South-Eastern Australia. Although, it is based on true events, the setting is of utmost importance here. Sofie (Strahovski) is a dance-loving air hostess who is escaping her recent past out of fear. Ameer (Bazzi) wants to relocate to Australia from Afghanistan with his wife and two daughters after fleeing persecution. Sandford (Courtney) takes up the job of a security official at the detention camp and Cowitz (Keddie) is the newly appointed in charge of the refugee detention camp. The show explores the trajectories of primarily these four people. The first episode begins with a song whose keywords are “In Between”, indicating how the characters are at will be rendered at crossroads.

A dictionary essentially defines a refugee as someone who has been forced to leave their country or home or place of comfort. This definition is seamlessly extrapolated to the lives of the four prime characters who, amongst themselves, have been forced to leave their country (Ameer), their home (Sofie), and their place of comfort (Sandford and Cowitz). While Sofia is forced to leave dancing when things go haywire at a cult she was part of, Sandford is coerced into taking up this mentally and physically taxing job. Similarly, Cowitz had to leave her relatively comfortable desk job. She is having a tough time keeping up with the heat that accompanies her current job both physically – she sweats a lot as the detention center is in the middle of a desert – and mentally – no refugee management is ever easy.

Coming back to the setting i.e. Australia. A narrative that suspends on the core idea of escaping harsh realities of life and coming to terms with them, the geographical identity of Australia adds to the meaning of the messaging. The isolated “island” country located in the south-eastern hemisphere, is surrounded by waters on all sides. Meanwhile, the central portion is occupied by dry deserts. Therefore, a massive chunk of the population lives near the coast with vast bouts of nothingness on either side. Likewise, refugees are also people constantly living on the edge. So whenever the characters are in the face of mental or physical assault, they run deep inwards or dive out to combat it, hoping to arrive at a safer haven. The emotionally captivating journeys of the characters are metaphorised neatly by the spatial significance of the setting.

Beaches are also used as a recurring motif. Sea shores denote the idea of statelessness, going from solid to liquid; from land to water; from one identity to another. While the real events that the show is based on transpired between 2004-2005, the showmakers never highlight the said timeline – so as to convey that immigration woes and weak border laws do not need to be underlined with definite eras. Sofie’s sister, another important character, is named Margot as a nod to the popular Australian actor Margot Robbie. It helps in reminding us that the stories are rooted in real lives. The writing has astuteness, awareness and poignance written all over it.

Only if the editing had lived up to the ambition of the writing. Emotionally charged present-day narratives are intercut with flashbacks, whose unclear timelines put me off. As a result, one is left with no option but to wait for the resolution in the final episode. Expectedly, the final episode resolves too much too easily. Made me wonder what harm an extra episode or two could have done

Nevertheless, Stateless demands your attention. It is an urgent and relevant creation by Cate Blanchett, who appears in a cameo. The show fleetingly also touches upon several other pertinent issues, like the dichotomy between honest reportage and bureaucracy in today’s time. The dichotomy between the interes ts of refugees and officials overlooking them. Far-reaching ill-effects of poor detention laws, which result in people getting marinated in the sun of hopelessness for years in these camps. But most importantly, it tells us that the actual definition of a refugee, a state and life in general is what we make of them. It transcends what any dictionary teaches us. The grammar and language of our lives lies in our control.

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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