Form overtakes function in Eugenie Jansen’s “Above Us All,” a 3D experimental drama about processing loss that’s filmed using a camera constantly panning 360 degrees. Conceived as a way of capturing time’s unstoppable continuum, the pic is technically impressive, yet the device, coupled with this script, can’t sustain its length and becomes more a gimmick than a reflection of deeper truths. Centered on a half-Aboriginal girl transplanted to Belgium following her mother’s death, “Above Us All” unsuccessfully grafts on a WWI subtheme that never jives with the contempo story. A small local and Australian release is the most that can be expected.
Continuing her interest in cross-cultural juxtapositions, Jansen (“Sleeping Rough,” “Calimucho”) begins in New South Wales and the family of Shay (Shayleah Sands), 11, a tomboy partial to driving a motorbike and hanging outdoors with her younger brother, Kaleb (Kaleb Sands). “We’re ordinary people living an ordinary life,” she says, accompanied by sequences of the kids with Aboriginal mother Marie (Pearl Davern) and Belgian astronomer father Koen (Maarten Baes). Given the camera’s unremitting, stately pan, events unfold within a limited time and without clarification, so Marie’s death is signaled by her funeral rather than expository scenes guiding viewers as to what’s about to come.
Three months later, Shay, Kaleb and Koen are in Ypres, staying with Koen’s aunt (Annette Linthout) and uncle (Christian Delplace) in their B&B until a home of their own can be found. Shay’s having difficulty coping with her loss, and Koen is finding it hard to connect with his volatile daughter. Throughout the pic, voiceovers relate Aboriginal creation myths, contrasting with Koen’s pragmatic theories on the finality of death.
Ypres, of course, was the site of some of the most intense fighting of the First World War, and via battlefield visits, original stereoscopic photos, and re-enactments staged for tourists, Jansen aims to use the cultural understanding of the Great War’s devastating fatalities as a ghostly counterpoint to the hole in Shay’s life. But Jansen never succeeds in finding resonance between the bewildering landscape of loss that struck down so many in Flanders fields and the sadness of a young girl whose mother died too soon. Koen tries to explain that, as long as Marie stays in their memories, she won’t be completely gone, much as the WWI poets urged the world to remember, yet Shay has no psychological access to the monumentality of death that marked the war, and conflating the two events reveals no insight into either.
Neither, unfortunately, do the slow 360-degree pans, sometimes coming full circle and at others stopping partway. Yes, it signals time’s inexorable progress, and mimics the way incidents both important and banal form part of life’s panorama, yet the inescapable, steady camera movement, shot at 50 fps, constantly calls attention to itself, hinders connection to character and homogenizes the film’s mood. Jansen seems half aware of this, and adds occasional voiceovers to fill in the gaps in her characters’ inner lives, though suddenly introducing people, such as a widow speaking of bittersweet reminders of absence, further jumbles the pic’s thrust.
As in previous films, Jansen uses non-pro actors; she’s extremely fortunate with Shayleah Sands, as the young girl is a natural onscreen and has no problem conveying depth of feeling within the voiceovers. Baes, an astronomer in real life, is less suited to his role and winds up colorless.
The 3D deliberately recalls stereoscope photos of the war and is meant to make the characters more a part of our space, though ultimately the extra dimensionality adds little. Given that the Western front was all about terrain, the camera’s unstoppable pans across fields evokes a landscape still crying out to those capable of hearing; auds less sensitive to the conflict won’t make the connection. Shadows in print viewed were murky, but this could be a DCP issue.