The Subtle Art of Cultural Activism: a Review of Stateless

By Isabelle Winkler
Photo by Min An from Pexels

This year’s premiere of the ABC series Stateless has been running the international streaming circuit, recreating Christmas Island in the peak of its notoriety. The physical and mental torture of detained asylum seekers is factually constructed and exposed, along with the knowing compliance of government officials. 

Stateless follows the connected narratives of Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski), a German-Australian flight attendant who is ushered into a cult during a schizophrenic episode. Later, after being rejected by the cult’s leaders and assuming the identity of a German backpacker, she is imprisoned with suspicion of an expired visa in a Christmas Island detention facility. She crosses paths with Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), an Afghan father in the facility after arriving on a people-smuggler boat fleeing political persecution. On the other side of the fence is Cam Sanford (Jai Courtney), who, working a job with a chief requirement of keeping people subdued in captivity, is struggling to separate his unhappy marriage with his working life. Claire Kowitz (Asher Keddie) is brought in as a white-collar bureaucrat, humanising the government’s stance with the uphill task of justifying their actions and silencing the mistreatment.  

Sofie saunters through the opening credits painting an idealised image of the white-washed Australian golden girl. Charming by default, we’re quickly introduced to her German parents and taken into their household of standard suburban grievances. Disapproving looks, critique spun as advice and a shadow cast by her older sibling, all comprise a typical family Christmas affair, immediately inviting the audience to draw their parallels. The commonplace scenario eases us into engaging with the narrative through her eyes. Leading deeper into the series, we easily follow and soften with her grievances. 

The scenes flicker between Sofie and Ameer, who is shuttling his wife and two daughters through dusty roads onto a beaten truck. His kind eyes and soft demeanour render him instantly likeable. We are led back to Sofie’s dining room, then pulled into Ameer’s turmoil nine thousand kilometres away, drawing a stark comparison between the two very different sets of familial problems faced by the pair. 

I wonder if it’s more than just the suburban similarities that dig up our empathy for Sofie? Her whiteness can’t be ignored, and somehow shifts her experience to the forefront, with Ameer’s story trailing as secondary. Why is it that Sofie’s arrival in the prison is jarring, yet Ameer’s is somehow easier to swallow? I have to wonder if our own conditioning by media portrayals of “whiteness” and “otherness” subconsciously softens us more to Sofie’s experience. Whilst we are simply saddened by Ameer’s story, we are outraged by Sofie’s. 

A still from the 2020 television miniseries Stateless of actor Yvonne Strahovski (Right Now/ABC)

Their interlocking stories continue to run in tandem. Whilst Sofie is processed in the centre quickly and with compassion, Ameer undergoes the same interrogation met with hostility and mistrust. Stateless examines this racially charged apathy for detainees’ wellbeing by presenting Sofie’s treatment as a product of being white and presumably German. The other prisoners notice quickly, and whilst sympathetic to her mental state, encourage her to spotlight their struggle to the Australian public.

Whilst the show elicits more compassion for Sofie, similar sentiments were used to propel the human rights abuse faced by real refugees when Cornelia Rau, a German and Australian citizen, was wrongfully detained between 2004 and 2005. Through the gripping dramatisation of the events lived by Rau, the abuse is contextualised through the eyes of someone who could be our neighbour. Similarly, bringing too light the question of our empathy for her plight being a product of inherent racial bias, learnt prejudice or simply the familiar. 

The actual events of the show did indeed prompt an inquiry into human rights back in 2005, bringing the treatment of Rau to public and federal awareness, further hammering the strength of racial bias in instigating the discussion. Stateless both presents this prejudice as a reflection of what transpired and flips it once more unto the show’s audience, in an attempt to provoke the same reaction seen in the Australian public at the time. With the announced reopening of the Christmas Island detention in August this year, reigniting a fresh discourse on immigration processing is vital and the push from Netflix in the international forum could be critical.

As Australians, we rarely get the chance to examine our own identities through the rest of the world’s eyes. Watching Stateless premiere at the Berlinale Film Festival earlier this year offered the chance to zoom out and gauge what the rest of the world (or at least Germany) thinks of us. To see Cate Blanchett, Yvonne Strahovski and Asher Kedder speak to a mostly German audience about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was an uncomfortable relief.

It’s something no Australian wants to associate with, but as shocking and embarrassing as it is for us as a nation, it needs to be acknowledged with the rest of the world rather than conveniently swept under sandy white postcards. Sensitively, Germany seemed the right place to start the discourse, as a nation familiar with the necessity of speaking up about an unsettling past. 

Immigration detention is not the typical glamorous muse of a hit Netflix series. It’s an uncomfortable and silenced topic, even historically so from gag laws on centre workers. The Abbott Government’s “Stop The Boats” campaign in 2014 still seeps through immigration discourse, giving crude justification for locking people up as the better alternative to drowning at sea. As do mainstream media representations cycling favoured words like “queue jumpers”, “boat people” and “illegals”. In 2013, the Gillard Government launched a task force finding that 95% of the asylum seekers were indeed genuine refugees. 

A still from the 2020 television miniseries Stateless of actors Fayssal Bazzi and Claude Jabbour (Right Now/ABC)

Stateless uses Asher Keddie’s character Claire to illuminate the Australian government’s hold on information, by carefully controlling the story that makes its way to the public. Her continuous friction with journalist David (Dan Spielman) begins to unravel her personal stance on the issue. He points out that “stopping the boats doesn’t make the problem go away, it just means we don’t have to look at it”, framing the issue as a matter of perspective in how it’s communicated. As David’s words gradually chip away at her conscience, she ultimately goes against orders and, once Sofie’s identity is known, leaks the story to him. However heroic in the end, it does throw the government’s media manipulation into concern, alongside the gag laws we know were in place outside the show. 

Through bureaucratic influence, the refugee crisis has been unjustly politicised as an immigration problem in the media. The affirmation to “Stop The Boats” arises sporadically in election platforms and is often closely tied to xenophobic sentiment as a way to scapegoat racial minorities.

Attention has been pulled away from Australia’s international obligation to protect people, even more disturbing knowing over half the arrivals are children. How can it be that those fleeing for their lives are demonised and left to die rather than welcomed and resettled?

In 1992 the Australian Parliament enshrined the international Refugee Convention into the Migration Act 1958. Anyone arriving in Australia is legally able to seek protection from our government. Instead, they are faced with the unconstitutional human rights abuse we witness throughout the series.

Stateless enacts effective, modern activism through its entertainment value by sparking candid discussion in a non-pressuring manner. By fronting a white poster-woman for the trauma of sufferers usually invisible, the show begs us to question the racial bias passed down to us through Australia’s mainstream media. Asylum seeker processing has become so highly politicised that dropping it in conversation was once atomically jarring. Over the last months, as the show’s popularity has crept up, I’ve witnessed it become a normalised talking point, as with any other Friday night film recommendation. Re-packaging issues that are awkward to talk about in shiny, small-screen wrapping make them palatable enough for dinner table discussions, where grassroots advocacy can truly take hold. It’s the much-needed dose of cultural activism Netflix has been bleeding for.

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