Stateless: some thoughts

Mike Berger reviews the Australian television drama series

The TV series ‘Stateless’ opens with a woman running in apparent terror through the arid scrub of what appears to be the Australian Outback – the exact location undisclosed. While the sequence is by no means original it introduces the themes of escape and terror and, by implication, entrapment.

In the remainder of the opening episode these themes are given concrete reality through a series of flashbacks which initially introduce us to the running woman as an air hostess undergoing a life crisis within the confines of a kind but straitlaced and conformist family. The woman, whom we initially get to know as Eva Hoffmann, is seeking release from her unbearable feeling of suffocation by the uncomprehending family within which her rebellious but directionless spirit is embedded.

‘Eva” joins an organisation which offers release from the unbearable heaviness of being through dance, openness and vulnerability. The film subtly cues us to the darker side of the organisation and soon enough her initial feelings of release and affirmation are brutally betrayed by the Svengali-like leader and his female partner.

Eva (who eventually turns out to be an Australian named Sophie Werner) is shattered, escapes and eventually lands up at the Barton Immigration Detention Centre, one of many scattered throughout Australia where most of the rest of the story unfolds.

Without spelling out the narrative plot, the structure of the film allows key themes of human existence to be played out in the drama of a detention centre designed to hold refugees escaping intolerable conditions in their home countries for the promise of a better life and a new beginning in Australia. Clearly their current plight within the detention centre recapitulates the central thread of Sophie’s own, superficially very different story.

The centre is run with generally remarkable decency (Australia is after all a liberal democracy) by staff relatively under-trained and emotionally and intellectually ill-equipped to deal with the intolerable ethical and practical dilemmas of incarcerated, increasingly restless captives waiting for the painfully slow wheels of bureaucracy to process their papers.

The inmates (refugees), the staff, the new manager and, of course, Eva/Sophie all come with particularistic experiences, hopes and personalities of their own trapped within a system bristling with conflicting incentives. The film relentlessly explores the stresses inherent within the context of the camp and the way these play out in the individual and collective lives of those enmeshed within its confines to explode in periodic crises which, eventually, are partly resolved.

It is impossible to ignore the relevance of the film as a metaphor for human life in which the personal and the political are merged in ways opaque to most of the participants. Central to this theme is the issue of moral agency in a state of powerlessness faced with contradictory ethical dilemmas.

Stateless is remarkably successful in depicting a range of human types and their responses without falling into simplistic contrasts of good and evil and retaining the sympathy of the audience for all except the most extreme examples of deviance and exploitation. In particular, it powerfully conveys the reality that, once established, a political system assumes a life of its own imposing its externalities on the humans entrapped within it. In so doing it blurs the binary distinction between perpetrators and victims so beloved of the modern progressive discourse, more accurately portraying most of us irrespective of rank, as victims to some extent.

To do this without discarding the idea of moral agency is a considerable achievement whatever the limitations of the production in purely filmic terms. It is worth pondering deeply but while doing so it’s important to remember that the film is a metaphor or a parable; not the full buzzing confusion of life. It doesn’t, for example, properly examine the role of the media or technology or different political cultures, ideologies and history or scale, and many other things which are key to understanding politics in the modern age.

But for an empathic exploration of the individual trapped in an intractable reality it’s well worth a look.