Much like flying the Stars and Stripes upside down signals a state of emergency in the US, you know there’s something amiss about the Australia depicted in Maziar Lahooti’s darkly comic feature debut Below when a globe shows the great southern land topsy turvy.
“That’s exactly what we were aiming for,” an enthusiastic Lahooti notes when I bring up the fleeting ominous detail over a coffee after the movie’s debut at the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival.
“We tried to inject visual and metaphorical symbolism into every aspect of it, bombarding you with all this stuff that gives you a visceral feeling by the end,” he adds. “Those sort of stories always stick with me enough to keep thinking about them.”
Very loosely based on the play by Ian Wilding, who also handled the adaptation, it throws up a lot of questions in an appealingly chaotic manner. Purportedly set in a near-future dystopia, there are echoes of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in that everything that happens hews close to the truth.
An unchained Ryan Corr (1%, Holding the Man) plays Dougie, a wheeler dealer who takes up a job in the refugee detention centre run by his growling Scottish stepfather (a wobbly-accented Anthony LaPaglia, Lantana) to get violent debtors off his back. While Below may see refugees technically back on Australian shores, nefarious government policy has designated certain ‘special business areas’ no longer within our borders.
“There’s no shortage of leaks about what goes on in these camps, but what I notice is that it seems to be having the effect of desensitising us,” Lahooti suggests. “People are paying attention to escapist cinema, so we thought if we could embed some of these ideas into an entertaining package, maybe we could keep that conversation going and the ideas flowing.”
An appealing anti-hero, Corr’s dodgy Dougie may be initially unwilling to work in the camp, but it doesn’t take him long at all to set up an illegal cage-fighting tournament, bribing Phoenix Raei’s detainee Azad with extra toiletries and live-streaming it for major monetary gain.
“He’s a bit Hunter S. Thompson,” Lahooti suggests of Corr’s amusingly amoral character. “We needed someone who could maintain this charismatic humour without trivialising the situation. A naïve fool in a way, and only the court fool can speak truth to the king.”
Norwegian-born Lahooti’s parents fled Iran during the 1979 revolution, and he’s deeply influenced by that country’s cinema. “Iranian filmmakers have to speak in these enigmatic ways, because they are trying to get stuff past the censors.”
That’s why he revelled in layering Below with a cacophony of ideas and visual nods, including flashing computer-game like visuals signalling online gambling over refugees’ bodies. “We talk a lot about how privacy is dead business,” Lahooti says. “So in this world where people are so starved for anything that they know is real, because everything is fake, they’ll watch this.”
Raei brings a wounded dignity to the role as he struggles to protect his kid sister Zahra (Lauren Campbell). “They are the heart and soul of the movie,” Lahooti agrees. “They represent the political reality. He’s an amazing talent and he nailed the role, fully understanding his tonal position in the story.”
Because much like the Australian movies Lahooti loves – including Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – Below gleefully switches gears repeatedly, keeping the audience off guard. There’s the personal drama between Campbell and Raei, the cartoonish menace of LaPaglia’s Terry, Tarantino-like fights and much broader comedy involving a horny guard with her eye on Dougie (Morgana O’Reilly).
“We created this tonal map where each character sat,” Lahooti notes. “So Azad and Zahra and all the refugee characters are in a different movie from Ryan, Morgana and Anthony’s characters.”
There’s some of George Miller’s punk anarchy too. “I love movies like Mad Max, you know, going a bit out there and being a bit crazy,” Lahooti says.
Speaking of Max, there’s a link there to LaPaglia’s attempt at the Scottish brogue. “That was his idea, and I said ‘yeah,’ but I wanted to push it,” Lahooti reveals. “I know this sounds weird, but I think ever since Braveheart there’s movie Scottish and real Scottish. I remember the first time I heard real Scottish I was like, ‘What’s that? That doesn’t sound like Mel Gibson.’ So it’s kinda purposefully experimental.”
A bit like Below as a whole, then. Lahooti hopes audiences will respond well to its whacky dynamic. “If we were going to go the caustic realistic approach, I think we’d just end up preaching to the choir and I’m not interested in confirming what we all believe. It just feels like an ineffective feedback loop. So we’re trying to ask important questions in a form that might be received by a person who isn’t very politically conscious, or maybe even people who are totally on the other side of the debate.”
Below premiered at MIFF 2019.
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