Debuting globally on Netflix this week after broadcasting on Australian TV (ABC) earlier this year, the six-part series called Stateless raises an important issue we rarely see on our screens – that of asylum seekers. And yet, this important topic seems to be secondary to the main storyline which focuses on how a ‘white girl’ accidentally ends up in a detention centre as a refugee.
Executive producer, Cate Blanchett, and writer, Elise McCredie, are old school friends and when interviewed about how they were inspired to make Stateless, they’ve said they were shocked to hear the story of a ‘white girl’ who ended up at the Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia after several stints in correctional facilities.
The ‘white girl’ is Cornelia Rau – an Australian citizen of German descent. Because of mental health and other issues, Rau did actually mistakenly end up at the Baxter Detention Centre. Blanchett and McCredie said they were so fascinated with Rau’s story they used it as the central story – interwoven with three other storylines – and this is how they came up with television drama, Stateless.
But it does beg the question – can’t a story about refugees and asylum seekers stand on its own merit?
Do we really need to sensationalise this important topic with a more ‘interesting’ story about a how ‘white girl’ somehow ends up in a detention centre?
It seems that we do. By far the main character of the first episode of Stateless is Sofie (played by Yvonne Strahovski of The Handmaid’s Tale). We’re given all the details of Sofie’s background including her rather stern German family, who live in Sydney, Australia.
Sofie works as an airline stewardess and after a harrowing family Christmas dinner where she’s being set up with a potential partner, she escapes via her parents’ bathroom window (a scene which some reviewers have cited as ‘unlikely’) and soon after, we see Sofie dancing in a mesmerised state at a gathering of a group called GOPA.
Sofie becomes involved with GOPA and as other reviewers have written, this part of the storyline is not ‘wholly convincing’ and seems ‘over-the-top.’ GOPA is portrayed as a cult with Cate Blanchett and Dominic West playing the two leaders, Pat and Gordon.
Blanchett and West portray a grotesque pair of unlikeable ‘cult leaders’ but inexplicably, Sofie finds herself drawn into their influence.
Of course, things get worse and she becomes even more traumatised during her time at GOPA. When she leaves, we see her going for a swim and then shortly after, she turns up in the queue to enter a detention centre. How is this possible we ask?
Is this how it happened?
The makers of Stateless place this disclaimer at the beginning of the first episode: Although inspired by true stories the events and characters portrayed have been created for dramatic effect.
But the facts of what happened are available. Cornelia Rau was involved with a ‘cult’ when she was 32 years old. It was six years later when Rau was 38 that she was found at the Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia.
An investigation into the matter was held in 2005, called The Palmer Inquiry, and the ensuing report made no reference to the ‘cult’. Instead, the report examined all the checks and balances which were not adhered to, allowing the situation to occur.
But for drama’s sake, these elements of truth are not shown in Stateless and this renders the whole series a dramatic beat up with no resemblance to what were actually real-life events.
Is Stateless Worth Watching?
There are two other storylines in the first episode of Stateless and this is perhaps where the real stories lie. We meet the Afghan family trying to flee Afghanistan so they can provide a better life for their two daughters. The father of this close family, Ameer, is played by Aussie actor, Fayssal Bazzi, and we see him constantly battling to ensure his family’s safety.
The other linking storyline introduces us to a young, local family man called Cam (played by Jai Courtney of The Suicide Squad fame). His friends tell him he should get out of his dead-end job as a boiler maker and become a detention centre guard. In the end, he follows their advice and we can see there’s now a lot more in store for him.
There’s one other storyline which we don’t see in the first episode but it’s part of the second episode. It’s here we’re introduced to our golden girl, Asher Keddie, when she arrives to play Clare – sent in to clean up the PR mess which unravels at the detention centre when it becomes clear that a ‘white girl’ such as Sofie, should not be there.
So – is it worth watching?
There’s been a lot said about how Stateless is beautifully shot and features a star-studded cast. It’s great to see the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) investing in a dramatic production with all the costs this involves. And while the first episode disappointingly concentrates on Sofie’s sensational personal story, the other storylines finally show more perspective about what it’s like to be sent to a detention centre or to work at a detention centre – perspectives we haven’t been privy to much before.
Whether this is enough to keep Stateless relevant remains to be seen. Quite a number of reviewers have written about the ‘troubling white packaging’ we see in Stateless. As a review in Mashable sums up, written by Alison Foreman and titled: The overwhelming whiteness of Netflix’s ‘Stateless’ undermines its good intentions:
‘The series has good intentions, but its narrative proportioning stands antithetical to its earnest message. Stateless assumed its audience needed white characters to care, reinforcing the disturbing sentiment of Rau’s experience — that white people will always be the first given attention in a crisis.’
And another review from the Detroit News by Tom Long states:
A series about how terrible the refugee system is told through the eyes of white folks is just a bit bizarre, especially as tens of thousands of people around the world are marching calling for racial equality. I mean, yeesh….
The system is a mess, no doubt, fully awful, unfair and brutal. And “Stateless” approaches this head-on. It just would have been nice to reflect more on those who are abused than the white folk who cage them in. Again, yeesh.
So while it’s a step forward to see a story about refugees finally gracing our screens, there’s obviously a whole lot more steps we need to take before we’ll be covering this issue in the manner it deserves.