‘Stateless’ is gripping, nuanced story of refugee detention centers

Stateless on Netflix
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

“Globally, there are currently over 70 million displaced people seeking sanctuary from war and persecution. Half of these are children.” This is a statement shared by Netflix’s new Australian miniseries “Stateless,” which released July 8 after finding success with Australian audiences in the spring. 

To put it simply, this miniseries, which is based on a true story, is not one of joy. It is not fulfilling, it is not uplifting and it is not a tale to be proud of — but it is a story that deserves undivided attention. Set within an Australian immigration detention center, viewers are pulled into the brutal life of asylum seekers, the aggression of prison guards and the confused reality of an Australian citizen faking her identity in hopes of getting deported from her home country. 

In the beginning episodes, “Stateless” centers on how far Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski) is willing to go to escape her overwhelming home environment and start life over. But altogether, this series is an intersection of four separate storylines: those of Sofie, who yearns to flee from her own life; Ahmed Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), who struggles to bring his family from Afghanistan to escape violence; Cam Sandford (Jai Courtney), who takes on a new job as a guard at the detention center; and Clare Kowitz (Asher Keddie), who is brought in to deal with misbehaving detainees.

Strahovski’s name may sound familiar from her previous role as Serena Waterford in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but the two characters she plays are about as similar as night and day. The actress naturally conveys Sofie’s internal traumas surrounding a lack of family support and a grim sexual assault, falling slowly into mental oblivion as Sofie spends more and more time imprisoned under the stolen identity of a German traveler.

Australian A-lister Cate Blanchett makes prime appearances throughout the series as Pat Masters, who holds a rather confusing place in this storyline, running a cultlike dance studio that gives off more pyramid scheme vibes than plies. The actress’ statuesque character doesn’t play a principal role in the story — even though Blanchett co-created all six episodes — but is striking when it comes to Sofie’s individual development.

At best, the side stories surrounding Sofie’s home life and the lives of some guards effectively put each character’s problems in perspective. While Sofie and Cam are spending Christmas Day enjoying a meal with their families, Ameer is checking his daughter’s fever as they prepare to flee their war-stricken lives by boat. This juxtaposition serves to show each character’s external motivation for their actions, and how some may be less in control than others.

Each character somehow reflects the theme of being in an unsafe place, weighing what that means for people of different backgrounds. The show sometimes frames Sofie’s plight as comparatively trivial against those of the families facing serious deportation, but her eventual schizophrenic symptoms are still lifted with intention to display her battles as valid and emotional.

As “Stateless” progresses, Cam’s character becomes visibly drained as the intensity of his role as a guard puts pressure on his beliefs and tests his limits. The show finds him in somewhat of a Stanford Prison Experiment situation, displaying what the environment and sudden power grab may do to a person’s psyche. 

While every performance embodies grit and connectivity, Bazzi undoubtedly turns heads whenever he and his on-screen daughter make an appearance. The overall story is a captivating watch, but the show could have benefited from taking some of the limelight away from Sofie’s character and shining it on Ameer’s storyline. What truly gives this show an angle of humanity does not lie in Sofie’s family struggles, but in the heartache of sacrificing to provide for one’s family.

Putting Sofie’s struggles as a person seeking a new life against those of the real refugees seeking asylum in Australia is undoubtedly a questionable choice, but the storyline nonetheless shines a light on the outstanding issues of real detention centers, such as the lack of proper translators, shielding from news coverage and brutality against detainees. 

“Stateless” ultimately humanizes a subject that has been the center of scathing political battles for decades. The final episode offers a platter of bittersweet endings — if you have even a quarter of a heart, it’s nearly impossible to stop your tear ducts from sobbing rivers at the conclusion of this distressingly real story.

Skylar De Paul covers television. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.