March 2020

Noted
by Craig Mathieson

‘Stateless’: ABC
A probing drama about Australia’s mandatory detention regime focuses on the dehumanisation experienced on both sides of the razor wire

Stateless is timeless. Although numerous characters, incidents and official policies are clearly “inspired by true events”, as the opening credits note, the ABC’s probing drama about Australia’s mandatory detention regime is not framed by specific dates or governments. Using a bleak detention centre in outback South Australia as the nexus for our ongoing national obsession with border protection, the show focuses on a secured zone where stasis is a weapon: refugee claims are not processed and conditions are designed to wear down detainees. One newcomer sights a man – catatonically hunched over, clutching a suitcase – and is told that’s what seven years without hope looks like.

Created by Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie and Tony Ayres, Stateless doesn’t debate policy. Instead it accumulates details – often damning – about what such conditions do to the people, on either side of the razor wire, who have to navigate them. Refugees (who in real life are kept faceless) receive the same focus and screen time as the Australian characters. The series treads a fine line on representation: what you would do for your family is a question equally asked of a detainee and a guard, even if their options are decidedly different.

Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), an initially optimistic Afghan separated from his family after several torturous boat journeys, is bussed in alongside Sofie Werner (The Handmaid’s Tale’s Yvonne Strahovski), an Australian flight attendant whose mental illness has been exacerbated by her association with a cult run by a coercive couple (Blanchett and Dominic West). Sofie is a facsimile of Cornelia Rau, the real-life permanent resident who in 2004 was detained for 10 months. Sofie believes she’s a German national and actually wants to be deported, but even then the system can’t accommodate her needs.

Similar absurdist details proliferate. “You have a duty of care to the UNCs – unlawful non-citizens,” declares a supervisor from the private company administering the base as he inducts new guards. One, local mechanic Cam Sandford ( Jai Courtney), has been swayed by the lucrative wage available after just six weeks of training. When he takes it upon himself to repair a broken swing set that children yearn to play on, he’s reprimanded because it can once again be used for self-harm. Ludicrous moments swiftly escalate into the shocking, and systematic failings are pungently recognisable. A domineering guard refers to a baton-beating as “a dose of the ol’ black Panadol”.

The urgent, empathetic direction of Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse makes the disorientation and dislocation palpable. Everyone struggles to cope, including immigration department bureaucrat Clare Kowitz (Asher Keddie), who is sent to shut down media attention and herself becomes a punitive jailer. With Canberra demanding results authoritarianism comes easily, and that is one of the crucial points this impressive show makes: facilitating moral wrongdoing and then ignoring it only allows for worse to flourish. “I just stood there,” Cam admits after witnessing a co-worker’s crime. “I didn’t do shit.” On Stateless, that’s the Australian way.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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