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Above and Below - East End Film Festival

Monday 6 July 2015, by Miranda Mungai

Above and Below is a charming and inoffensive documentary surrounding the lives of a few outcasts who have completely distanced themselves from ‘ordinary’ life and the society that this comprises. Whether this rejection is a result of their situation or a choice varies between each character. The film follows the lives of three sets of people – those living above the earth (mars), on ground level (the desert) or below the streets (in the tunnels of Las Vegas).

The documentary begins poetically and immediately brings to mind the similarly magical Bombay Beach (Dir. Alma Har’el) with it’s sensational natural summer sun, lens flares and vast tundra landscapes that are desolate but not barren, still holding life and thriving livelihoods. Those documented are depicted as having a sensibility most of us lose to childhood – of engaging in eternal play thanks to their surroundings yet without the constraints of parental supervision. The charm of the film is held in this sense of youth and in the characters themselves, who develop from these images of juvenile contentment to more complex individuals. As the intimacy between audience and character evolves we learn who they are, why they are where they are and where they hope to be. Yet, as we learn more about them and the film develops, its initial sweetness morphs into a pseudo-intellectual perspective of the world. Although not overwhelming, when you listen to what these people are saying, really listen, you realise that it means nothing. Surprisingly, this doesn’t greatly affect the overall quality of the film (though perhaps it could have been half an hour shorter).

The filmmaking is remarkable; the three main stories intertwine by surreal means, my favourite being their individual interactions with ping-pong balls. Above, ground level and below are all interconnected; a reminder that we are all connected in some way, regardless of distance and lifestyle. It’s easy to forget that this film is a documentary- not only due to acts of performativity such as playing ping-pong, but also the stories which are so completely surreal in themselves, so unlike mainstream society that it stops feeling believable. Despite its understated structure and the characters speaking in balls of hot air, Above and Below has a lot to say; about human nature, survival and, bleaker still, the lifestyles people are forced to adopt due to the effects of a neoliberal economic agenda. There is a moral that lies beneath this serene and lazy story and this moral is easy to miss, as boredom or perhaps serenity begins to reign. But this film does say something, even if it’s an idea shrouded in beauty, pretension and dreamlike living.

Dir. Nicolas Steiner, 2015

The film will be screened as part of the East End Film Festival at Rich Mix in London on 9 July, at 8.45. It will be followed by a Q&A. Tickets are available here.

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