New to Netflix: Cate Blanchett-helmed drama 'Stateless' shines light on Australian 'prison camp' islands
Starring Blanchett and Elise McCredie, the six-part series is inspired by real-life events
It was 2014 when Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and her high-school friend and fellow actress Elise McCredie hit on the idea for Stateless, the new dramatic mini-series that comes to Netflix on Wednesday. Back then, in their native Australia, the government’s controversial immigration policy was coming under fierce scrutiny, with refugees being shipped to offshore detention centres.
“We just couldn’t shake it off,” says Blanchett. “We were just so gripped by the real-life stories that we were reading.”
As part of the so-called Pacific Solution, Australia-bound asylum seekers were sent to camps on Manus Island and Nauru, among other places. Detainees endured appalling conditions as their applications were processed; mental health issues, suicide, illness and even murder were not uncommon.
Joined by producer Tony Ayres, Blanchett and McCredie decided to look backwards, setting Stateless in the early 2000s when Australia was on the cusp of implementing offshore detention.
“It’s when a lot of boats were coming to Australia and a lot of refugees were coming from Indonesia,” says McCredie, who co-wrote the scripts with Belinda Chayko. “The government of the time basically set up many [onshore] camps over a number of years that were very isolated, often in the desert, often in searing heat.
"Basically prison camps, where people were interred until their refugee status was accepted or not. There were many years of indefinite detention for these people.”
Directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse, the six episodes comprise several storylines that intersect at the fictional Barton Detention Centre. On the detainee side, The Handmaid’s Tale star Yvonne Strahovski plays Sofie, a fragile German air hostess. She flees a suburban cult – run by a slick husband-and-wife team, played by Dominic West and Blanchett – only to face even greater horrors.
Meanwhile, Lebanese-Australian actor Fayssal Bazzi plays Ameer, an Afghan refugee looking for safe passage to Australia after escaping the Taliban.
“The central theme that we were all talking about when we were shooting it – and are still discussing now – is the theme of identity or the loss of identity,” says Asher Keddie, who plays the camp’s newly installed general manager, Clare.
The fourth major character is Cam Sandford, a rookie guard at the prison, played by Jai Courtney, the Australian actor known for big-scale Hollywood movies such as A Good Day to Die Hard and Terminator Genisys. Quitting his dead-end job to take up a better-paid position at the facility, the naive Cam is simply there to put food on the table for his family. But the reality of working in such a psychologically distressing environment leaves him shattered.
As Courtney came to discover, the basic six-week training course given to guards such as Cam is utterly inadequate. “It’s like night and day,” he says. “They’re prepared for something, but it’s not what they’re gonna get.”
I think our show is asking questions rather answering anything
Wherever possible, real life served as a telling template for the scripts. Sofie’s storyline, for instance, mirrors that of German citizen Cornelia Rau, a former Qantas flight attendant who was held as a suspected illegal immigrant after escaping from Kenja, a controversial Sydney cult. Cam’s storyline, meanwhile, was inspired by the documentary The Guard’s Story, which traced the powder-keg atmosphere inside one of Australia’s detention centres.
With the camp set built in Port Augusta, South Australia, about 320 kilometres north of Adelaide, the production was stationed only a few miles from Baxter Detention Centre, which was closed in 2007 after a number of controversies. It was eerie for the actors.
“It was difficult,” admits Keddie, “seeing this swing set in the middle of the compound with no swings on it and children just sitting in dirt. It was very authentic and really quite confronting.”
Further realism was added thanks to the background artists. “A lot of our extras have been through the system,” says Courtney. “Some of them spent five years in detention,” adds Keddie. “They wanted the story to be told.” These included cafe owner Saeid Safavi, who arrived in Australia on a fishing boat from Iran back in 2001, much like the character he plays in Stateless, a refugee named Karim-E Nasseri. Safavi spent two years in Baxter before thankfully gaining his freedom.
While it took six years to get the show financed, Blanchett’s determination never wavered. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that its evolution coincided with the actress joining the UN’s Refugee Agency UNHCR, in 2015. Her work included missions to Jordan and Lebanon to meet Syrian refugees, as well as encountering asylum-seeking families in Brisbane, who had previously been victims of Australia’s "offshore processing" when they were shipped out to Christmas Island, Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
“The stateless people I’ve met have all said that they feel invisible and they talk about this terrible limbo that they’re in,” says Blanchett. “They have no access to basic human rights, so it’s a generational problem. And it can happen as simply as losing your passport or losing your identity papers, and you’re not able to prove your identity, so therefore your children can’t get an education, you can’t access basic medical care, you can’t get married.”
It clearly marked Blanchett and her family. She recalls taking her son, Ignatius, who is now 12, to Jordan. “This one boy wouldn’t get up to play [football] with him, and he said, ‘Does he not want to play?’ And I said, ‘No, darling, he got shot, and he still has shrapnel in his foot, when he was crossing from Syria to Jordan – he can’t walk properly.’ You could see him going, ‘That is so outside my experience’. Whether he remembers it consciously or not, you get altered by those exchanges, I think.”
If anything, Stateless aims to prick the public consciousness in much the same way, although the creators warn audiences not to expect solutions.
“I think our show is asking questions rather answering anything,” says McCredie. “Of course you can’t have permanently open borders. Our series is saying that here is a problem that is only going to get bigger in this world: 70 million displaced people and growing.” As she rightly says: “There is no easy answer.”
Stateless is on Netflix from Wednesday, July 8
Updated: July 6, 2020 01:42 PM