As Maziar Lahooti’s film Below (2019) opens, Dougie (Ryan Corr) is getting the bashing of a lifetime – and he’s grinning. The camera holds tight on Dougie as he smirks and cracks jokes while unseen thugs smash electronic equipment around him. He even tries to light a cigarette, though it’s punched out of his mouth in slow motion. Immediately, we sense this is a film about spectatorship: one that locates entertainment in the act of watching violence.
Eventually, Dougie is left to explain to his mum, Cheryl (Alison Whyte), who owns the just-trashed house, that he owes money to some shady people. His professional milieu is the darknet – the online underworld below the World Wide Web, beyond the rule of law. There, he presents himself as an entrepreneur, an impresario. But, to everyone else – including Cheryl and her hulking Scottish partner, Terry (Anthony LaPaglia) – Dougie is just another basement-dwelling manchildFor more on the figure of the ‘manchild’, see Mel Campbell, ‘Dawn of the Dad: Masculinity and Maturity in Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters’, Metro, no. 203, 2020, pp. 20–5. who refuses to grow up and get a real job. The latter is the very lifeline Terry offers his stepson, in a grim little kitchen-table conference: a chance for Dougie to earn out his debt at Terry’s remote worksite. But Terry is no miner or oil rigger. He works for Newhaven Border Solutions, guarding an immigration detention centre.
The film is set in a near-future wherein legislation has formally excised the land on which the detention centre is located from Australian sovereign territory. It’s a legally lawless place, a terra nullius whose operations depend on an impermeable bubble; staff are warned that telling outsiders what goes on there will be treated as ‘digital terrorism’, and Terry implacably stonewalls the efforts of social worker Imogen (Zenia Starr) to find out.
While the fast-talking Dougie initially thinks himself blasé and desensitised, he turns out to be very soft and naive by Newhaven standards. The detainees’ despair and self-harm bother him, as does the guards’ callous disregard for it. And he’s rattled when he learns some of his colleagues have set up a fighting cage in the desert outside the camp, where selected detainees are coerced into participating in bare-knuckle fistfights while the guards bet on the outcome. Still, Dougie can’t help seeing a unique way to pay off his debt – and then get the hell out of this place.
Covertly, he attaches a webcam to the fighting cage, advertises the next bout on the darknet as a pay-per-view live-streamed event, and is delighted when the cash starts rolling in. He convinces the softly spoken detainee Azad (Phoenix Raei) to fight by promising extra privileges to the latter’s little sister Zahra (Lauren Campbell), and, when Terry and the other guards discover Dougie’s webcam, he expands his racket and offers them a cut of the proceeds. Even Cheryl is excited that she’ll finally get the holiday she and Terry have dreamed about.
But, soon, Dougie is confronted with his complicity in a system that permits any and all violent exploitation so long as it remains below the radar. As he flails to make things right, Below explores whether a sense of morality – even one as comatose as Dougie’s – can survive such a social structure of impunity.
Lad from the ‘lucky country’
Scripted by Ian Wilding from his own stage play, Below had originally been set in a mining camp; it was co-producer Veronica Gleeson’s idea to adapt the setting to an immigration detention centre.See ‘Below – Q+A with Director Maziar Lahooti’, Melbourne International Film Festival website, 8 July 2019, <http://miff.com.au/blog/view/4393/qa-with-below-director-maziar-lahooti>, accessed 3 March 2020. Debutant feature director Lahooti was familiar with such places. He was born in Norway to parents who’d fled the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and then he settled in Perth at sixteen. His mother had worked as an interpreter in immigration prisons, and his family had hosted refugees on bridging visas.See ibid.; and Don Groves, ‘First-time Director Maziar Lahooti Gets Ready to Go Below’, IF.com.au, 23 July 2018, <https://www.if.com.au/first-time-director-maziar-lahooti-gets-ready-to-go-below/>, accessed 3 March 2020 As he told the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) – whose Premiere Fund co-financed Below – last year, his ultimate motivation for making the film
was the opportunity for a heightened darkly comic tone, in the realm of Jungian symbolic metaphor, to be used as a sort of zeitgeist lens through which we could take a deep look into our soul as a nation and people, and to then relate that to the wider world.Maziar Lahooti, quoted in ‘Below – Q+A’, op. cit.
Below’s ‘heightened’ quality extends to its visuals, and this, together with a suite of exuberant, charismatic performances, situates the film within the recognisable terrain of the ‘lad caper’ subgenre. Lahooti and cinematographer Michael McDermott’s grimy, earth-toned colour palette, the use of animated text overlays, their eye for kitsch, the jittery camera movements and abrupt shot transitions, and the high-definition slow motion and high-contrast lighting in which the fight scenes are rendered are all reminiscent of films like Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland (2009) and Venom (2018), and Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016). These ‘lad caper’ films feature cocky, fast-talking male protagonists who expertly navigate underworlds, using their wits – if not their ethics – to stay ahead. They’re antiheroes whose quick resort to violence and lawlessness is intended to be funny and relatable. Lahooti uses this manic tone and texture to bring us inside Dougie’s head, and thereby to align his moral perspective with that of the audience.
This itself is a political critique. Dougie is quintessentially Australian, in the sense that social theorist Donald Horne meant in 1964 when he famously described Australia as ‘a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck’.Donald Horne, The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties, Penguin, Melbourne, 1964. As a con man, Dougie is second-rate: a chancer who stumbles across and exploits opportunities rather than thinking critically, making hard choices and finding his own way. Azad is his foil: whereas Dougie selfishly wants to make money, Azad is motivated entirely by the need to protect Zahra; Dougie is garrulous, while Azad watches quietly and keeps his counsel; Dougie gets himself into trouble but manages to wriggle out of it, while Azad is trapped by a foreign government. If Dougie has been lucky, Azad has been phenomenally unlucky: a first-rate man at the mercy of fools.
Corr’s committed performance holds the film together. He’s sweaty and motormouthed as Dougie tends to his online network of webcam-hacked blackmail patsies, strives to convince Terry to get on board with his fight-club scheme, or wheedles favours from King Ciggy (Robert Rabiah), the detainees’ chief fixer. But Corr can also be as twitchy and sensitive as a rabbit, as when Dougie primly resists the lurid sexual advances of fellow guard Michelle (Morgana O’Reilly), or when he reacts to moments of shocking violence.
By the end of the film, Dougie has decided to put his Machiavellian darknet navigation skills to use for an unambiguously good moral purpose. Such a ‘heel–face turn’A term from professional wrestling, in which a villainous character, known as a ‘heel’, has a change of heart and becomes a hero, a ‘babyface’. seems like a jarring tonal shift, and makes Dougie look hypocritical; he goes from flippantly comparing the detention centre to ‘a Holocaust movie’ to earnestly becoming an Oskar Schindler–style rescuer.Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is the protagonist of historical drama Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993): a German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved more than 1000 Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factory.
Perhaps Lahooti’s point is to highlight hypocrisy in the film’s audience, too: we want to think of ourselves as essentially good people, yet we have also found entertainment in Dougie’s glib manner and ‘edgy’ jokes, and in the cartoonish violence he produces for his online subscribers, which the film’s own stylistic approach echoes. ‘I have been attempting to reconcile that paradox my whole life,’ Lahooti told MIFF, ‘so this film is probably part of that continued attempt – and I hope the audience comes away asking the same philosophical questions.’Lahooti, op. cit.
But is Below the moral sucker punch that its director intended, or does it swing and miss?
Preaching to the choir
‘People don’t want to see,’ Azad tells Dougie in the car on the way to the fighting cage. By this, he means the Australian public don’t care what happens to people like him. But social-justice filmmaking also risks limiting its message to arthouse audiences who are already inclined to be sympathetic to the issues under scrutiny.
Lahooti was ‘very conscious of not preaching to the choir with Below’:
Our aim is to make a movie for folk who want their movies to be movies – wildly entertaining and fun, and populated with compelling characters you want to hang out with, and relationships you care about.ibid.
Nonetheless, by basing its black comedy on a close facsimile of real-world Australia’s actual immigration-detention policy, Below appeals most to politicised audiences who care enough about this issue to find the idea of laughing about it appealingly transgressive. Critics have compared Below to Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010), a film that portrayed British-born jihadis as misguided bumblers,See Sarah Ward, ‘Below: Melbourne Review’, Screen Daily, 6 August 2019, <https://www.screendaily.com/reviews/below-melbourne-review/5141729.article>, accessed 3 March 2020. and to Lucky Miles (Michael James Rowland, 2007), which follows a comic trio of asylum seekers and people smugglers as they wander the West Australian wilderness.See Luke Buckmaster, ‘Below Review – Fight Club Meets Australian Immigration Detention in Jumbled Black Comedy’, The Guardian, 6 August 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/aug/06/below-review-fight-club-meets-australian-immigration-detention-in-jumbled-black-comedy>, accessed 3 March 2020.
Such comedies perform their political critique by collapsing the ‘us-versus-them’ narratives that drive social divisions, instead emphasising the characters’ shared humanity. This is different from the sentimental, idealistic way in which serious-minded social-justice dramas – of the sort we could fairly call ‘Oscar-bait’ – insist on their characters’ essential moral fibre, and flatter their audiences for recognising and identifying with the good in them. Political satires suggest instead that the truth about human nature is more often found in our worst moments: our most pathetic failures and most foolish delusions.
Thanks to the grim first-person accounts that have emerged from Australia’s immigration-detention regime, viewers cannot claim to be shocked, as Dougie is, by the way the State violence of this system expresses itself on vulnerable human bodies – through asylum seekers’ self-harm and suicides, and by the way the staff of contract companies such as the fictional Newhaven systematically deny detainees their safety, dignity and freedom.See, for example, Behrouz Boochani, Ben Doherty & Nick Evershed, ‘Self-harm, Suicide and Assaults: Brutality on Manus Revealed’, The Guardian, 18 May 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/may/18/self-harm-suicide-and-assaults-brutality-on-manus-revealed>, accessed 3 March 2020. Because of this, the least shocking sequences of Below are those showing outright violence against detainees, both in and out of the cage.
More pointedly, Below conflates the systemic dehumanisation within the detention centre and the callous anonymity that reigns online. In Below, as in actual Australian immigration detention, the government categorises asylum seekers as ‘unpeople’ without human rights, and the guards casually refer to detainees by numbers, not names.See, for example, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, ‘RACP Submission: Conditions and Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Refugees at the Regional Processing Centres in the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’, April 2016, available at <https://www.racp.edu.au/docs/default-source/advocacy-library/pa-sl-senator-l-pratt-racp-submission-to-inquiry-into-nauru-and-manus-island.pdf>, accessed 3 March 2020. Likewise, on the darknet, Dougie and his viewers conceal their identities with masks and throwaway usernames, while, in the cage, the fighters underline their unperson status by disguising their faces with stocking balaclavas.
Dougie belatedly realises his complicity in this inhumane system when Azad, the fighter whose humanity Dougie has come to recognise, is stabbed to death by a defeated opponent who had smuggled an improvised knife into the cage. Dougie had previously treated the cage fights as ‘harmless’ – or even satirical – sideshows within an essentially legitimate system. But Azad’s live-streamed murder – and the catatonic grief into which it plunges Zahra – forces Dougie to consider his own culpability as a producer of entertainment spectacles.
Where Lahooti’s film falters is in its failure to provoke the same feeling of guilty complicity in its spectators – both within the story and in the cinema. Even the wronged Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) shames his audience for taking pleasure in his brutal arena violence by bellowing at them: ‘Are you not entertained?’ Instead, Below’s amoral, laddish tone slips into something more morally righteous as Dougie decides to free Zahra from the detention centre, using all his darknet leverage to make it happen while his colleagues are distracted by the next cage bout.
The closest this film comes to genuine social critique is in its final scenes, when Imogen, who initially agreed to help Dougie by finding Zahra a foster home, gets cold feet and backs out; this forces Dougie to seek help, yet again, from his mum. Imogen sees the immigration-detention system as a human-rights debacle – just as this film’s audience does, and the wider Australian public. But she’s still afraid to break free of that system, even in a single moral act. Perhaps Below’s most challenging proposition is that it’s easier to watch violence and feel moralistic about it than to take moral actions that have violent consequences.
|1||For more on the figure of the ‘manchild’, see Mel Campbell, ‘Dawn of the Dad: Masculinity and Maturity in Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters’, Metro, no. 203, 2020, pp. 20–5.|
|2||See ‘Below – Q+A with Director Maziar Lahooti’, Melbourne International Film Festival website, 8 July 2019, <http://miff.com.au/blog/view/4393/qa-with-below-director-maziar-lahooti>, accessed 3 March 2020.|
|3||See ibid.; and Don Groves, ‘First-time Director Maziar Lahooti Gets Ready to Go Below’, IF.com.au, 23 July 2018, <https://www.if.com.au/first-time-director-maziar-lahooti-gets-ready-to-go-below/>, accessed 3 March 2020|
|4||Maziar Lahooti, quoted in ‘Below – Q+A’, op. cit.|
|5||Donald Horne, The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties, Penguin, Melbourne, 1964.|
|6||A term from professional wrestling, in which a villainous character, known as a ‘heel’, has a change of heart and becomes a hero, a ‘babyface’.|
|7||Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is the protagonist of historical drama Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993): a German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved more than 1000 Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factory.|
|8||Lahooti, op. cit.|
|10||See Sarah Ward, ‘Below: Melbourne Review’, Screen Daily, 6 August 2019, <https://www.screendaily.com/reviews/below-melbourne-review/5141729.article>, accessed 3 March 2020.|
|11||See Luke Buckmaster, ‘Below Review – Fight Club Meets Australian Immigration Detention in Jumbled Black Comedy’, The Guardian, 6 August 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/aug/06/below-review-fight-club-meets-australian-immigration-detention-in-jumbled-black-comedy>, accessed 3 March 2020.|
|12||See, for example, Behrouz Boochani, Ben Doherty & Nick Evershed, ‘Self-harm, Suicide and Assaults: Brutality on Manus Revealed’, The Guardian, 18 May 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/may/18/self-harm-suicide-and-assaults-brutality-on-manus-revealed>, accessed 3 March 2020.|
|13||See, for example, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, ‘RACP Submission: Conditions and Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Refugees at the Regional Processing Centres in the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’, April 2016, available at <https://www.racp.edu.au/docs/default-source/advocacy-library/pa-sl-senator-l-pratt-racp-submission-to-inquiry-into-nauru-and-manus-island.pdf>, accessed 3 March 2020.|