What ‘Stateless’ tells us about detention centres and Australia

The new TV drama makes the case that detention centres, despite their offshore locations, are central to Australian politics, culture and even identity

When a TV drama endeavours to lift the shroud of secrecy under which Australian detention centres operate, what does it say about these far-flung facilities and how the general public thinks – or doesn’t think – of them?

The prevailing political and media discourse has rendered the public largely ignorant of detention centres, positioning them as a black hole in the nation’s psyche. They exist in the public eye, but only as spectres. And this helps explain why detention centres have remained an under-explored subject in Australian film and television – until Stateless.

ABC TV’s pedigree six-part series, whose two co-directors aspire to verisimilitude, intends to fill that void. The show’s writers take advantage of a lengthy runtime to flesh out four lives caught up in Australia’s detention centre regime circa the early 2000s. This was before the introduction of offshore processing took the already ‘out of sight, out of mind’ asylum seeker experience and geographically located it beyond Australia’s borders – but certainly without expunging it from headlines and public debate.

The lives of the four key characters in Stateless intersect at the fictional Barton Immigration Detention Centre. Two are detainees: Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski), who we see in the opening moments of the first episode running in desperation across a barren desert, prompting the question of what happened to her and why; and Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), an Afghan man who travels to Indonesia to seek passage to Australia but is swindled by people smugglers and separated from his family.

The other two are newly employed staff members at Barton. Cam (Jai Courtney) is an ‘ordinary bloke’ and father of three, who takes the job because it offers triple his previous salary, but is troubled by what he sees inside. Clare (Asher Keddie) is a general manager determined to bring order to a tense and fraught environment – which poses various bureaucratic challenges, security breaches and whispers of an uprising.

stateless cam sandford
Jai Courtney plays Cam Sandford, a guard at the detention centre. Credit: Ben King

Prefacing the name of the central location with “fictional” indicates, of course, that no such centre exists. But would it make any difference if it did?

To the average viewer, the distinction between the two is irrelevant given how little the public understands about the internal goings-on of these places. The question of what daily life is like in the shadow of barbed wire and fortressed walls, in a prison-like environment populated by displaced people ensnared in a kind of purgatory, remains well outside the common lived experience. What is “stop the boats” but a slogan that reduces impoverished, desperate lives into a vulgar mantra designed to be spat out rather than chewed on?

A couple of recent exceptions, crossing the fiction and non-fiction divide, only further draw attention to the question marks hanging over the asylum seeker experience. Released in 2016, Eva Orner’s shocking exposé Chasing Asylum was filmed in secret, using cameras smuggled onto Manus Island. The experimental feature Below, which premiered at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, is a not-too-distant dystopian drama that crafts a brutal visual metaphor for Australia’s handling of asylum seekers, in the form of a large outdoor cage the film’s morally repugnant protagonist uses as the setting for a live-streamed Fight Club-like event.

Stateless is more reminiscent – in tone, temperament and nuance – of SBS’ 2018 four-part drama Safe Harbour, a morality play hinged on an encounter between holiday yachters and a boatful of asylum seekers on a slowly sinking vessel. The writers of both productions work hard to establish themselves as dramatists rather than polemicists, using moral dilemmas to explore the humanity of their characters. In Stateless this most often occurs throughout Cam’s journey. Does this fundamentally decent person speak up against the violence he witnesses, risking his job and livelihood? Or does he turn a blind eye and betray his own moral standards?

Both productions use the presence of white characters to pry open storylines where the plights of non-white people are more significant – certainly in terms of dramatic stakes. An ABC news story addressed the question of “if it’s a show about refugees, why is the cast so white?” by explaining the Caucasian ethnicity of several of Stateless‘ principal characters as a calculated decision to appeal to the widest possible audience.

Co-creator Elise McCredie, inspired by Netflix’s hit series Orange Is The New Black (which has a white, upper-class, New Yorkian protagonist), described the use of white characters in Stateless as a “Trojan Horse” to get it over the line and attract the interest of general audiences. The strategy appears to have worked: Netflix has swooped in and acquired global rights outside Australia.

stateless cate blanchett
Cate Blanchett co-created and stars in the series. Credit: Ben King

The scope of the series widens after the adrenaline-pumping opening sequence depicting Sofie charging across the sun-baked landscape. The narrative bobs and weaves across a scrambled non-linear timeline, oscillating between all four key players.

One particularly compelling connection uses the visual motif of the ocean to segue between Sofie and Ameer. The writers make a point, without stating it, about the differences in their circumstances. The former has the luxury of choosing to enter the water; the later is embroiled in a heart-rending moment during which he is forced to say goodbye to his wife and youngest daughter.

It is the detention centre, however, that draws the characters together like a terrible magnet. This foreboding place forms Stateless’ central frame of reference – visually and thematically. Is there another kind of location in Australian culture that is as enigmatic, yet as shockingly real? Is there another kind of location so central to Australian politics – and even to notions of Australian identity, despite being now positioned offshore?

Author Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian asylum seeker who wrote his award-winning book No Friend But The Mountains from within a detention centre, one text message at a time, discussed detention centres and offshore processing with The Guardian. He put it the following way: “Manus and Nauru are a part of Australia forever, and you cannot deny this.” Even though it’s a fictional location, the same could be said about Barton.

Stateless is currently airing on ABC in Australia and on Netflix worldwide.

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