(Re-posted from Jeremy's Rotterdam Roundup.)
Nicolas Steiner’s dizzying documentary look at the unseen underbelly of the American Southwest is literally incredible—its shots are so beautifully choreographed and photographed and its subjects so forthcoming that it leaves you incredulous about its veracity. The vistas are sweeping and the camerawork is flawless—suddenly floating up into a crane shot out of the blue without losing any of its handheld intimacy. Semi-standard documentary interviews are intercut with stunning non-narrative images, like a man swimming alone in a frame of nearly opaque sky-blue water or thousands of Ping Pong balls riding the flood wave through a storm drain, and while this artistry does pull away slightly from their stories, it elevates the film above the limitations of conventional documentary. This is as beautiful as any art film but also true.
Sunday, April 10, 7:00pm
Monday, April 11, 6:50 pm
Director: Nicolas Steiner
Producer: Helge Albers, Brigitte Hofer, Cornelia Seitler
Writers: Nicolas Steiner
Cinematographer: Markus Nestroy
Editor: Kaya Inan
Music: John Gürtler, Jan Miserre, Lars Voges
Above and Below focuses on a few people scattered across the Southwest: Cindy and Rick, who we spend the most time with, are two of the approximately one-thousand people who live in the storm-sewers beneath Las Vegas, always on the edge of having their home and all their possessions flooded away from them by a thunderstorm; Dave is a former truck driver who lives alone in an abandoned military bunker in the desert, sending messages to God that he spells out with bottles in the sand (messages like “I NEED $7,000”); April, though less down-on-her luck than the others, is in an equally bizarre world as a Martian explorer-in-training, wearing a space suit and running simulations of the surface of Mars in the barren Utah desert. April is particularly open about her life, sharing uncomfortably intimate truths about her family and why she hopes to leave Earth behind for good. This is the stuff of science fiction—from mole people to abandoned bomb shelters to Mars colonies—but the subjects are so honest and forthcoming, due no doubt to something welcoming and nonjudgmental in Steiner’s approach to interviews, that their portraits are as familiar as they are moving. Its final shot, a man climbing out of a manhole to walk amongst crowds on the Las Vegas strip, is emblematic of the film's whole project: portraying people on the fringe of American society who, like everyone else, are just trying to survive.