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Above and Below | 2015 Hot Docs Review

Above and Below Nicolas Steiner posterBoth the title and premise of Swiss director Nicolas Steiner’s latest documentary mildly echoes the recently released and quickly disregarded found footage horror schlock As Above, So Below, but his Rotterdam premiered endeavor is more heady, heartfelt and a hell of a lot more beautiful in every respect. Weaving together the unconventional lives of the unfortunates subsisting in the subterranean underbelly of Las Vegas and the desolate deserts that surround the city of sin, Above and Below evokes the sly scifi documentation of the daily routine found in Yuri Ancarani’s evocative Platform Moon while posing its own inquisitions into the social stratospheres of dereliction by casting its varying subjects as nothing less than aliens autonomously banished for shame or self preservation.

Steiner’s focus rotates between the dark and soggy sewer dwelling couple Rick and Cindy, their respected tunnel bound neighbor, Godfather Lalo, a former drug addicted truck driver named Dave who now occupies a remote shelter in the Californian deserts west of Vegas, and April, whose loveless upbringing and shell shocking experiences in the military have left her wishing to quite literally leave Earth to live on Mars. Shot by skillful cinematographer Markus Nestroy with an eerie elegance and an awareness of the otherworldly environs these people inhibit, their stories ebb and flow like space dust in the breeze as we observe their estranged routines and listen to them each reflecting on how they ended up in their individual situations, most of them involving irresponsibility and pure bad luck.

But how they ended up like this is only part of the story. Why they continue to live like this in a sort of contented discomfort is the greater question. Lalo, having never owned his own home or garnered respect above ground as a part of society, has found himself in a position of some authority in the tunnels. Though his authority is as fabricated has his hard edged persona, it obviously is serving as a security blanket that shields him from the outside world.

While Rick remains a rather mysterious figure, Cindy, we find, has a large family she’s incredibly proud of, but has lost contact with over her decision to stay with her lover, homeless. They spend their days dumpster diving for food, furniture and anything that could be hocked to fund their crack and gambling habits. Their place of residence is an underground drainage outlet that washes away all of their belongings every time it rains, forcing them to start over with every downpour. They live in a state of perpetual tragedy, unwilling or unable to reach out of help for anyone but each other.

Dave’s story is similar. Haunted by addictions and bad decisions, he’s lost contact with his family whom he dearly loves, but now just sticks it out in the desert. Though jovial in his telling of his past life, there are deep regrets in his voice for which he is knowingly paying penance for, alone.

Of the five, it is April’s intergalactic endeavor that sets the film’s scifi tenor. She and a team of space travel enthusiasts suit up in makeshift gear, form teams and venture into the red, snow crusted desert on faux NASA training missions. Her experiences with the bulk of humanity have left her wanting to abandon Earth in hopes of finding a new beginning. Paired with the propulsive melancholy electro score by John Gürtler and Jan Miserre that is reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s recent cinematic work, the science fiction elements colors Above and Below as a whole, leaving us to ruminate on the cultural causes of alienation and the infinite internal reasons why someone might choose dereliction over seeking reprieve from those that they have hurt or been hurt by.


Reviewed on May 8th at 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival – International Spectrum Program – 118 mins

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