The Australian Outback. Turn of the Century. A young woman is running, desperately. As she runs, she regularly glances behind her. But whatever is pursuing her hasn’t caught up with her. Yet.
Cut to: a very nice house deep in the suburbs. Sofie, an airline stewardess, is visiting her family for Christmas. The mood is standoffish from the start. Her mother suggests passive aggressively that she may want a shower. The family seems to be more interested in her sister than in her. As Sofie delivers an anecdote about a dance she attended in a palace where the floors were thick with turtles covered in glitter, she is cut off and a visitor is asked to wax lyrical about spreadsheets.
Sofie retires to the bathroom. When she has been gone for quite a while, her sister enters and sees that the window is open and Sofie is missing.
Cut to: a community hall where Cate Blanchett and Dominic West are running the show. He wears a permatan and constant smirk and is a – what exactly? A motivational speaker? A faith healer? He tells the audience to cast off their suit of conformity and to embrace their real selves. And to prepare for the coming Eisteddfod, where someone will be chosen to lead the dancing. Sofie looks on transfixed.
Cut to: a camp which is presumably in South-East Asia. Ameer and his family have arrived from Afghanistan after years of raising the money to try to escape to Australia. A con man cheats them of their money and passports, but Ameer finally gets his wife and two daughters into a flimsy boat. He will take a beating from people trying to stop them and try to catch up with them later.
Cut to: Cam sitting in a pub with an old mate who’s now a security guard. Cam hates his job, and is slowly persuaded to apply for a job in the refugee camp. The authorities insist its not a prison, but the wire fences and the two Tamils protesting on the roof suggest otherwise. The other guards see Cam as a bit of a softie – why does he build a swing for the kids when people will only use it to hang themselves? Later on, Cam will look on appalled as a “guest” is severely beaten.
Cut to: Sofie inside the camp compounds, although now she’s called Ewa and speaking with a Tcherman accent (to be fair, at the family gathering, some of her relatives are also German). While everyone else in the camp is trying to get into Australia, she is trying to get out and is pleading with someone, anyone who will listen, to deport her to Germany.
Cut to: Clare starting her new job as an administrator in the camp. As she enters the compound, all the refugees rush to her, asking her to solve their case. Sofie/Ewa hangs impotently in the background. Clare asks the bloke running the camp why these cases can’t be resolved. He says that its the fault of the government, who she is there to represent. As Clare talks to her boss, it becomes clear that her job is not to help the refugees but to keep them out of the newspaper headlines.
What we saw at the Berlinale were the first 2 episodes of a 6-part series (which is why we had no explanation about the opening running woman scene), so it is difficult to make a final judgement. I am particularly interested in the amount of weight given to Ameer’s story next to those of the white Westerners.
In the Q&A afterwards, one of the actors noted how rare it is that we see refugees as real, 3-dimensional people. This is true, but Ameer’s story is one of four, and despite a traumatic incident towards the end, it is unclear to what extent the story is about him. Equal weight could be given to Clare’s story, which is essentially one of just obeying orders.
The writer/showrunner Elise McCredie also spoke after the screening and explained how the Sofie character is a “trojan horse”. I understand what she said in two senses, neither of which is particularly encouraging. On the one hand, your average Netflix audience won’t necessarily sit down to watch a 6 hour series about a load of refugees, but if the heroine is young and blonde they may give it a go. On the other, this theory counts double if you’re talking about people who might finance the film.
This is all quite possibly true, but it means we’re already skirting on thin ice. At the very least, I fear an attempt to compare Sofie’s First World Problems with the mortal danger experienced by refugees fleeing persecution. This is not to say that Sofie should just shut up and suck it up, but I very much hope that we won’t be offered some sort of liberal “everyone’s got problems” equivalence.
Apparently the film is based on the true life story of Cornelia Rau, which I didn’t know before now, and does seem pretty traumatic. So if I can second guess what’s going to happen, Sofie will be made to suffer much more than we’ve seen so far. Which is sort of fine, but I do get the feeling that the film makers think (for funding reasons if nothing else) that their audience won’t empathise with the traumas of brown-skinned refugees, so need to show some white suffering to placate us.
Nonetheless it is all done very professionally, not least by the sinister Blanchett and West, who I presume we will see again in future episodes. And notwithstanding some of the potential problems, the limited attempt to give refugees a voice can only be applauded. I’m looking forward to seeing the remaining 4 episodes, and hope that my worries will be assuaged and that the final result will be brilliant rather than just being merely very good, as it is so far.