VIFF 2015: Above and Below
The Vancouver International Film Festival has often used the tagline "Same Planet, Different World." This is particularly fitting for Above and Below, a substantial documentary which considers three unusual living situations.
Rick and Cindy live the most obviously unconventional life. They make their home in the flood channel system of Las Vegas where, in one of the many underground tunnels, they cook and eat and sleep and read and fight and joke around. When it rains they lose their possessions. One of their neighbors, known as the Godfather, also describes their subterranean environment. Dave lives in an abandoned military bunker in the desert of the American Southwest. April is part of a Mars simulation in a sterile, air-locked building in the terrifying and gorgeous moonscape of Utah. We experience these people's daunting external environments and slowly we enter the interior environments of their thoughts and feelings to understand what has led them to these places.
These people are very much living on the edge and for most, hardships and tragedy has led them away from society. However they are original and resilient and the film makes viewers respect the choices they have made for themselves.
Steiner had interesting and perceptive remarks to make about his work, which is his first full length film and was his film school graduation project. You would never know this was the work of a student as it is confident, sweeping and ambitious. When asked how he found the subjects for his film he stopped the questioner to say that in German the word subject has a harsh, judgmental quality and he preferred the term people or human beings. He found his material in very organic ways, mostly by exploring the margins and happening upon opportunities. He shot relatively little footage and did not cut anyone from the film.
Above and Below isn't perfect. It suffers occasionally from melodrama - but then these lives are fairly melodramatic. Visually the scope is as wide as the desert and as narrow as a concrete tunnel. It switches from above to below deftly and gracefully. Sometimes the music swells just a little too much but it was easy to forgive. I wish Steiner had gone a bit more in depth with April, the quietest subject of the film and perhaps the most difficult to film.
There are moments of incredible emotional intensity here, as when April describes the horrors of military service in Iraq and when Dave replies to an email about divorce from his wife withe the unembellished description that he agrees but has no address for legal paperwork. Definitely recommended viewing.