Something about Stateless doesn’t sit right.
Debuting globally on Netflix today (following its Australian broadcasting premiere in March), the six-part limited series paints a moving portrait of immigration detention in Australia. One of the world’s largest refugee safe havens, Australia has long grappled with a human rights crisis similar to that of the United States — a crushing collision of limited resources and thousands of people in need.
The subject matter is worthy, the production values are high, and the acting is exquisite. Stateless‘s central message, that refugees should be approached with empathy and compassion rather than fear-mongering politics rooted in hate and prejudice, is clear and profound. Still, one can’t help but notice the troublingly white packaging this narrative comes in.
One can’t help but notice the troublingly white packaging.
Statelessness is comprised of four central plots. First is the story of Australian permanent resident Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski), a woman with a mental illness who is mistakenly held as part of the country’s mandatory detention program as it existed in the early aughts. Her character is largely based on Cornelia Rau, whose real 2005 case helped bring attention to wrongdoings within Australia’s now-defunct Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.
The second is the story of Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), a refugee who flees the Taliban in Afghanistan and heads to Australia only to find himself and his family indefinitely held prisoner in a country they want to call home. The third and fourth through-lines center on two immigration policy enforcers: family man-turned-guard Cam Standford (Jai Courtney) and in-over-her-head administrator Claire Kowitz (Asher Keddie).
For the most part, these characters’ experiences run parallel, only intersecting in the final chapter to underscore a thematic crescendo. That three out of these four narratives center on white performers is disappointing, though one could argue that’s necessary to examine immigration affairs from all sides. It is, after all, a system dominated by white people in power, and showing those individuals’ experiences realistically and completely offers viewers a better understanding of the subject matter.
Less forgivable is that the only narrative centered on an actual refugee comes out as the least interesting, least developed part of Stateless. It’s not that Ameer’s arc isn’t given enough emotional weight or that the perspective of refugees is not present. Ameer is given a powerful backstory, solid screen time, and ample room to convey his experience. But his experience is not the one to which Stateless brings its most inventive, most praiseworthy storytelling — nor where it dedicates the majority of its time.
Stateless gifts huge components of its hour-long episodes to portraying the inner life of Sofie, a white woman whose role in the story exists mainly to emphasize the toxic effect white privilege can have on immigration policy. That outrage over a white woman mistakenly falling into the immigration system inspired more concern among the public than a repeated proof of abuses against people of color is troubling. That a show revisiting these events falls into the same trap is similarly upsetting.
I doubt I’ll be the first (or last) to admit I watched Stateless for Strahovski. Eager to see the Emmy-nominated actress do something other than torture Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale, I knew she would dazzle. It’s immediately apparent Stateless‘s creators knew the same, heaping backstory, flashbacks, and elaborate hallucination sequences on the character of Sofie.
Its messaging is incongruous with the rest of Stateless’s story.
In the first episode, we meet Sofie’s family, learn about her various mental health struggles, and watch helplessly as she quits her job, joins a cult, and enters a mental state that leaves her ill-equipped to make decisions on her own. It’s mostly in keeping with Rau’s experience — even the bizarre dance recital sequences are shown briefly in the trailer — and provides Strahovski plenty to work with. All of it is executed spectacularly and explains Sofie’s eventual placement at an immigration detention facility well. However, its messaging feels incongruous with the rest of Stateless‘s spirit. As Sofie whizzes through intricately designed scenes, devastatingly long monologues, and impressively complex moments of stillness, viewers are pulled further away from the systemic issue at hand.
Top to bottom, Strahovski is Stateless‘s star — far more so than the refugee crisis the series’ title evokes. Not only does Strahovski dominate the show’s promotional materials, but her character’s narrative is also without question the most comprehensive and elaborate. While it’s a unique and compelling account, it gets disproportionate emphasis compared to other issues present in the series, namely those of Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and genocide.
Alternatively, Ameer’s experience of existing as a refugee within a detention camp is whittled down to the most basic elements of that often tackled narrative. Lacking access to lawyers, financial resources, and phone calls while being held in a glorified prison having done no crime is a harsh reality, made apparent in the series but not explored fully.
Ameer is trimmed down to the well-known characterization of a father willing to do anything for his family with little texture added beyond that. We don’t know how he met his wife, how he likes his tea, or what he loves about his daughters. He’s a cookie-cutter stand-in for the idea of a refugee, a demonstrable embodiment of anguish for Stateless to hang its emotion on. Sure, it’s a part Bazzi plays well, but it’s also one beneath his talent, and it’s unfitting of the series’ otherwise impressive world-building.
If the driving thrust of Stateless and, in turn, the Rau controversy, asserts that it should not take the victimization of a white woman to legitimize the plight of thousands of people of color, then to hang this much of that narrative on a white actor feels disingenuous.
It’s an issue compounded by the series’ tendency to introduce more white supporting characters and flesh out other white leads even as characters of color remain underdeveloped. White journalists, white activists, and white government officials appear in droves with plenty to say and plenty of time to say it. Cam and Claire are granted so much character development that we understand the intricacies of their personal lives tremendously, with shots of them waking up and going to sleep appearing with relative frequency. Comparatively, Ameer and his family appear almost randomly in the narrative — regularly disappearing for considerable periods.
Of course, Rau’s harrowing account deserves to be heard and I don’t know that there was a better way to go about telling her story (other than expanding this series by a few episodes and giving Ameer a total rewrite). It is inextricably linked to Australians’ calls for immigration reform and combining those narratives makes thematic sense. Nevertheless, the focus of Stateless remains skewed toward its white stars and not the message they are attempting to convey.
There was more here to be discussed about Ameer, the millions like him, and the system designed to keep them oppressed, and it’s apparent Stateless had the time to do so. 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.
Stateless is now streaming on Netflix.