MIFF Blog: Below – sit, stay, watch and listen

August 9, 2019
With a life to live, who has the time to leisure in watching movies, even if it’s as good as the ones on offer at the Melbourne International Film Festival?

I am constantly shadowed by the thought that I may not have much to say about a film. There’s no crime in that, sometimes a thing is just a thing, even if it took many things to make it happen. For someone who hesitantly classifies themselves as a writer it can be quite the despairing experience, especially with time constraints as a factor.

And thus, here I am.

Reduced to babbling, or so I think. A few days into the festival, a couple of films in the bank, and many, many thoughts on said films still being digested. It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. How am I supposed to see all that I want to see and write about it while also juggling upcoming engagements, random bouts of stifling existential wanderings, probably some exercise, and making sure I don’t forget to pick up my new suit before next week?

There’s an app for that? Don’t speak such craziness!

Maybe I’m just excusing my lack of focus.

BELOW

Well… that was brutal.

I’ve come to a somewhat inaccurate conclusion that the way sunlight hits – and oh, does it hit – our land manipulates the way our cinematic landscapes look more than anywhere else in the world. We are painfully exposed in the way-too-much brightness, nowhere to hide. In Below, there is a lot of that inescapable sun, which is funny because (not in the Monty Python way) the more I think about the film, the more I see it as a caustic, flooding nightmare that cracks a vomit-inducing punch to the soul of our collective, guilt-ridden-and-prone conscience. It is so bright that many of us are unable to see, and thus are consumed by a different kind of darkness.

Like this nation, Below doesn’t know what it wants to be most of the time. Three or four stories jostle for the spotlight, each of them orbiting the poisoned chalice that is immigration in Australia. It jerks from one thematic thread to the next, casting off plot points with abandon before shooting them back into the story like a terribly constructed Tetris level.

Director Maziar Lahooti throws everything he can into the story. Sometimes it comes across as an off-brand overly violent The Big Short, other times it finds nuance and tenderness amongst the horror of a system designed to unceremoniously crush any hope for people who risk their lives to call Australia home.

It’s hard to thread the needle that Below tries for, and it never quite lands as a comedy or clear drama, or even horror if we’re going there. Which the film does, repeatedly. And yet it has echoes of the inventiveness and boldness of Australian cinema of the late eighties and early nineties, before it – perhaps inevitably – is consumed by the message itself. It wants to say everything it possibly can about the issue – stark, confronting, undeniable as it is – but it’s dominated by noise. Though even in that sense you can see the parallels to the toxic political and social discourse that surrounds the issue.

I find myself getting away from the film, and I was afraid of that. It’s so upfront in its statement on how royally screwed and damaged our immigration system is, but to what end? When cage matches featuring asylum seekers against prisoners (what’s the difference in some respects) becomes live streamed for money and the dark web’s perverse enjoyment, the bleakness is unremitting.

You just want to scream into the void. And even when glimmers of light shine through the darkness it feels naught but illusory, our own minds manifesting some kind of protective barrier to shield us from it. We want to help, we want to be filled with good intentions, but we don’t want to face the horror of it.

Again, off I go, drawn into the wider conversation the film throws in front of you. It drags and jumps around like a distracted child, circling Ryan Corr’s fuckup of a grifter Dougie who, because of bad debts, starts working for his… not quite stepfather who runs a privately contracted detention center. Corr comes off better than the film in terms of the tonal gymnastics but it still becomes exhausting with the upteenth time he has to perform the feat. The asylum seekers – mostly focusing on Phoenix Raei’s Azad and his mute, terrified daughter Zahra – feel constantly on the periphery, out of sight until the most extreme moments. A bitter truth of the real world, but narratively it causes the plot to drift without much of an anchor until a semblance of a redemption arc is stumbled onto.

Lahooti alternates between close and grimy, to apocalyptic wide vistas. The camera swings back and forth, an apt analogy of Below’s schizophrenic makeup. Gimmicks and flourishes of style and technique a constant – the fights slowed down to essentially graphic still images, or the online world that Dougie let’s in on the cage fighting splashed across the screen as numbers. There’s a beautiful sense of symmetry – for many of us we see asylum seekers and immigrants as numbers, either to be misdirectly enraged by, or dismissive of. And so it is with the skyrocketing viewers tuning in, or the cash flowing in. Lahooti is nothing if not engaging and interested in hurtling the audience into the churning wood chipper that is Australia’s immigration policies.

Is it any good? Does it fall short? Does it try to grasp at the sun only to recoil in pain? Whatever it is, and it is many things – and yet also none of those things – Below rides a depressing wave of relevancy, shouting at you to sit, stay, watch and listen.

Below is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

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