Netflix’s “Stateless,” which premieres Wednesday at the Berlin Film Festival, looks at the plight of refugees in a detention center in Australia. Co-creators Cate Blanchett, who also appears in the show, Elise McCredie and Tony Ayres talk to Variety about it, ahead of an on-stage discussion in Berlin moderated by Variety.
The story, which is largely set in a detention center in Australia, is told from the perspectives of four characters – Ameer, an Afghan refugee, Sofie, an Australian woman who erroneously ends up as a detainee, Cam, a camp guard, and Clare, the camp’s general manager.
The co-creators first started developing the series in 2013 when the policy in Australia had shifted to detaining immigrants in offshore camps, but they decided to set it in the early 2000s, when detention centers were operating onshore. “We were looking around for stories around immigration detention,” Blanchett explains. “We always saw the situation in Australia as a prequel in a way to the current situation globally.”
Ayres says: “I feel as though the show really is about the contradictions of trying to protect our borders and the difficulty of trying to find a humane policy with which to do it. I think it is an issue that is a global issue, and every country finds its own way of doing it.
“We were looking at the Australian context but we wanted it to be a starting point for a broader conversation about how do we do this in the most humane way possible.”
McCredie says through their research a key theme that emerged was that of identity, and in their interviews with those who had been through a long, indefinite detention it became clear they had undergone a “kind of erasure of who they were – you know, being called numbers instead of names.”
Then they connected this with another strand in the drama, inspired by a true story: a young Australian woman, Sofie (played by Yvonne Strahovski), escapes from a cult, and is put in the camp by accident. “The link with someone whose whole identity has been erased by a cult became clear as a linking thematic for the series,” McCredie says. “(In a detention center) you lose all the touchstones that you have of home, of community, of family, and that’s in a way what happens to Sofie. We really became interested in the thematic of that, and how what the cult did in some way reflected what happens to people when they are held for a very long time in detention centers.”
Blanchett adds: “From that too, they lose touch with so-called reality, and what became evident certainly in my experience in the field with the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), and the copious research that Elise did, is that was a really communal experience of refugees and asylum seekers, but also anyone who touched the immigration procedures and processes: that they really lost sense of their humanity and so-called reality.
“The system that they were all laboring under was so crazy that they really lost sense of the reference points in the society that they had thought were moral and humane and rational, and so their sense of themselves did really transform, both positively and very negatively.”
McCredie concurs with that: the bureaucrats and guards who oversaw the system were affected too by the dehumanizing process. “The experience of being in those detention centers – despite the differences of the characters – was profoundly similar in terms of loss identity and a kind of madness.”
“We came up with this thesis which is that mad systems lead to mad people,” Ayres says. “It is very hard to maintain your mental health in a system which is broken and dysfunctional.”
Blanchett adds: “And it is almost secretive in its kind of ‘Let’s put it in the desert and surround it with these enormous fences with barbed wire on top.’ This also leads to a kind of madness.”
Ayres says: “One of the biggest themes of the series is that silence. I remember our early conversations about this show was like this is something that we don’t talk about but we should be talking about.”
Blanchett says that that became another thematic of the show: “the visibility factor.” “The bureaucrats and everyone trying to keep eyes off it,” she says. “Eyes away, helicopters away, pickets away, lawyers away. And we ended up with off-shore detention, which is much easier to keep the eyes away.”
Clare (played by Asher Keddie), the bureaucrat who takes over as the general manager of the detention center, “genuinely believes that this is a good option, or if not a good option, there is no better alternative,” McCredie says. “As you progress through the series she starts to waver, question…and it’s not as simple as Clare becoming great or good or morally upright, but she certainly has a journey.”
Although she starts out having faith in the system, “once she has face-to-face contact (with refugees and staff) that starts to crumble,” McCredie says.
Blanchett says: “When people are not connected to the human cost on the ground in those environments and they are dealing with the statistics and the policies in a very abstract way, it is easier to make those academic decision, but I think once you experience the situation that people are in – the self-harm, the loss of hope, the despair, the separation of families, then you start to make a very visual connection to the immediate trauma of those people’s experience, and it does shift your point of view.”
She adds that if you “are disconnected from the actual epicenter of the trauma you can disengage from your sense of that could be me, that is a mother and her children, that is a father and his daughter, that is a family that is lost at sea… how can I help as opposed to they are the ‘other,’ we must keep them out.”
Ayres says: “(Clare’s journey) also echoes what we are trying to do as dramatist, as storytellers. In some ways our project is quite simple because we don’t come up with solutions, we don’t know what the answer is, but what we are trying to do is bring to an audience the real experience of being in that environment, and to watch how human-beings respond in that environment, and show them the complexity of feelings, and also the breadth of that world; so to take it out of cliche and abstraction into something that an audience can then connect to.”