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Making a comedy themed around Australia’s immigration detention system inevitably entails an element of risk, but one can never underestimate the power of well-directed farce or ironic statements. That is what I told myself going into the new Australian film Below, starring Ryan Corr as a detention centre employee who makes a mint from streaming footage of detainees fighting inside a rectangular outdoor cage – which looks vaguely like something from Mad Max or Turkey Shoot.
Going in, I had in my mind something along the lines of the asylum seeker comedy Lucky Miles, which put forward political commentary by invoking the absurdity of various situations – many involving flummoxed characters walking cluelessly across an unforgiving Australian landscape.
Instead I found something much more elusive. The premise sounds politically charged, but the director Maziar Lahooti’s execution is bizarrely coy, rarely articulating his themes in a direct way. The result is a film that’s difficult to grab on to, emotionally or intellectually.
Below begins with a bloodied Corr, playing Dougie, getting beaten up by an unseen party, in a scene drawn out stylishly by a slow-mo shot of a keyboard connecting with his face. When his stepdad Terry (Anthony LaPaglia) comes home, the beaten-up young man, who has a history in ratcheting various unsuccessful schemes, opens up about his financial troubles.
Dougie owes money to the wrong kind of people, following a couple of dud projects: something about an old-school rave where ravers pay with rainbows (naturally) and a streaming service broadcasting dodgy vérité videos. To pay off his debts, Dougie reluctantly agrees to come work for Terry in a detention centre.
The first glimpse of life inside its barbed walls shows a man covering himself in petrol then threatening to light himself on fire. Surprisingly, however, the director does not do much to explore this location or present it as a place of intense ongoing drama.
There are rarely more than a small number of people on screen at any time (most of the film comprises dialogue exchanges between two characters) and the central location does not feel large, or particularly populated. The energy of the film is surprisingly low-key, very much in the vein of a filmed play – not unexpectedly, given it was adapted from Ian Wilding’s stage production of the same name, which was based in an outback mining town rather than a detention centre.
Below is set slightly in the future, which explains a jumbled aesthetic (with recycled props and sparse looking backgrounds) as well as freeing it from the expectation of capturing a realistic view of life inside a detention centre. The guards force detainees to participate in one-on-one fights inside the aforementioned cage, with Dougie selling streaming access to faceless online voyeurs and sadists.
These grotesque live streams prove popular, as they did in last year’s terrific techno-thriller Cam, which scanned for crumbs of humanity inside a cesspool of online smut. But Below stays clear of exploring voyeurism, and online culture, and even the motivations of the content creator beyond a rudimentary desire to earn cash.
Nor does Lahooti offer much overt commentary about the Australian government’s attitude towards asylum seekers – though there are cryptic messages here and there. The first is the appearance of the film’s title stamped on top of an upside down map of Australia. Others are expressed through Terry’s description of the detention centre. This place is “the Cayman Islands via Lagos”, he says, offering “the plug up the arse of hope”, whatever exactly that means.
One senses that conversations between the characters are never as important as the dialogue between the film and the audience. Still, it’s a tough one. Lahooti’s approach is to maintain one great big poker face; you’re never sure what cards he’s holding or even what game he’s playing.
Below’s visual rhythms are unusual from the get-go. The framing is sometimes off-kilter, the camera often rushing up to the actors or rushing away from them. The frame also has a tendency to dance around, as if unsettled. There are unusual cuts from the veteran editor Ken Sallows (whose oeuvre includes classics such as Malcolm, Chopper and Gurrumul).
The overall feel is one of a film engaged in a constant process of finding itself. Corr’s oddly engaging performance is the glue that binds it together. He is erratic and cartoonishly outré, but gives the film a continuity not present in its deliberately discordant production values.
I found myself sometimes frustrated by Lahooti’s enigmatic approach. What is he trying to say? Why? On other occasions I was struck by the film’s sheer audacity, its refusal to provide anything remotely resembling a straightforward path.
Some viewers will leave engaged in thought, pondering the film like a puzzle. Others, I suspect, will want to track down every copy and burn it to the ground. For better or worse, it’s a unique experience.
• Below is currently showing at Melbourne international film festival
Source: The Guardian
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