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Berlinale Bloggers 2020
"Stateless" confronts a reality nobody can run from

Scene from Cate Blanchett's TV production "Stateless"
© Ben King

Co-created, co-produced and co-starring Cate Blanchett, the excellent Berlinale-premiering six-part television series Stateless tackles a topic that deserves greater attention on Australian screens.

By Sarah Ward

For a country ruled by successive governments who’ve proudly boasted about “stopping the boats”, Australia has given the topic of detention centres for asylum seekers scant big- or small-screen attention. There have been select documentaries such as Chasing AsylumChauka, Please Tell Us the Time and Island of the Hungry Ghosts, but the current six-episode series Stateless still stands out.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation-produced show's debut at this year's Berlinale comes hot on the heels of 2019 film Below, which used its immigration facility setting as a source of dark satire - but there’s no laughs or dystopian comedy to be found in this drama. Instead, Stateless unflinchingly and rousingly explores the paths that have led four strangers to the fictional Barton Immigration Detention Centre, the political climate surrounding the subject of migration and the wide-ranging consequences of punitive border control policies. The film is the work of many minds - it's created by Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres (Walking on Water) and Elise McCredie (Jack Irish), co-written by the latter with Belinda Chayko (Safe Harbour), and directed by Emma Freeman (Glitch) and Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker). 

An attention-grabbing start

In one of the most striking images committed to Aussie television in recent years, the series begins with a woman running across the country’s arid landscape. Smattered with dust and clearly agitated, Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski) provides the show’s entry point into its web-like narrative. Just how the former flight attendant came to be in his situation is one of Stateless’ main concerns - charting her unhappy home life, her solace in a cult-like dance school led by the unnerving Pat (Blanchett) and Gordon (Dominic West) Masters, and her path to Barton in a remote corner of South Australia, where she claims to be a German citizen demanding deportation back to Europe. Yvonne Strahovski in Cate Blanchett's TV production "Stateless" Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski stars beside Blanchett in "Stateless" | © Ben King Sofie’s tale isn’t that far removed from the real-life story of Cornelia Rau, which dates back to 2004. In Stateless’ other protagonists, however, broader realities converge in characters clearly drawn from too many actual people to mention. Afghan father Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) is trying to avoid persecution with his wife and two daughters, kindly Port Augusta local Cam Sandford (Jai Courtney) takes a job at the centre to support his own young family, and new general manager Claire Kowitz (Asher Keddie), a fresh arrival taking the only upward bureaucratic step she can, has been tasked with keeping the facility out of the news in the midst of a rooftop protest by Tamil refugees.

Thoughtful, careful and detailed drama

It’s with immense smarts, skill and sensitivity that McCredie and her team intertwine Sofie, Ameer, Cam and Claire’s journeys, as well as their pasts and motivations, plus different timelines. A much-needed amount of thought, care and detail has gone into not only who the regular on-the-ground players are in Australia’s immigration detention system, but how their tales resonate in an everyday fashion. While Stateless depicts rather than judges, it crucially keeps its focus on those affected by Barton’s inner workings on a daily basis - not the politicians pulling strings and taking credit thousands of kilometres away, or the high-level “turn them back” rhetoric that all Australians are aware of but few have stopped to wonder what it truly means in a practical manner.

The result: a weighty, exceptionally made, superbly performed series that confronts a grim reality that no one can escape. Newspaper headlines can be ignored, especially when they sing the same tune often enough. Offshore and remote detention centres can be pushed to the back of one’s mind, too even when they’re filled with tormented people simply attempting to escape untold horrors in search of a better life and home. But Strahovski, Bazzi, Courtney and Keddie’s finessed portrayals of those caught in the thick of Australia’s immigration policy aren’t so easily overlooked.

Stateless also starts airing in Australia on ABC TV from Sunday, March 1.