The self is the universe and the universe the self, the micro and macrocosm – as above, so below. Nicolas Steiner’s documentary focuses on individuals living on the fringes of society, who are in some way adrift, and yet whose way of being brings them closer to an understanding of the world.
Living in underground flood channels running beneath Sin City we meet Cindy and Rick, a loving but vice-addicted couple who have, as they describe it, fallen into the gutter. Searching through bins, agilely climbing fences and squeezing through gaps in the urban landscape, they take whatever they can find.
In another underground den, Lalo, the ‘Godfather of tunnels’, his gloomy ghostlike face glimmering in the half-light, explains that he is not controlled, that he has total agency over his life.
We also meet David, a grandfather living alone in a deserted military bunker in the middle of the California desert, and April, part of a team at the Mars Desert Research Station reenacting possible future landings on the red planet in the harsh but striking lunar landscape of the Utah desert.
The stories are beautifully spun, revealed slowly to allow the film’s innate poeticism enough space. In the opening minutes we are presented with visions of the underground tunnels filled with strange lights, detritus, the massive sky of the desert and the red dust of the false Mars terrain.
Within this vision, the ancient past, uneasy present and strange vaulted archways of the future all collide – David finds clam shells in the desert; April and her team find fossils but also discuss how soon a flight to Mars will happen; Rick and Cindy, who has a complex naivety reminiscent of Loden’s Wanda many years on, live only in the present, surviving but in some way unfettered.
What also lies behind each curious hermetic existence is pain and all the characters are avoiding confrontation with the key emotional difficulties of their lives. If Steiner had been looking for a more pop-culture title, he could have called his film ‘American Outcasts'. But that’s not the narrative he was seeking.
Living in worlds that the people streaming through the glare of Vegas, shopping in malls and rushing to work can barely dream of, their place on the fringes allows them to see more clearly the destructive selfishness of mankind and to intuit that God, of whatever kind, is often in the detail.
The question of spirituality and God runs through the film, suggesting that however it may manifest itself, we need faith in something beyond ourselves to survive. And DoP Markus Nestroy brings a dreamlike clarity that is perfect both for Steiner’s vision and the unreal reality his subjects are living.
These individuals’ relationship to the elements and their environment, in April’s case an imagined one, is also presented as something spiritual. Even living in the slum suburbs of Vegas, Rick and Cindy have their home swept away with a Biblical regularity and exercise their own cobbled-together form of spiritual belief.
Researching Above & Below after viewing it, I was slightly stunned to discover that it is Steiner’s graduation piece and that his professors were very negative about the project when he showed them the first six and a half hour cut.
Yes, that would have been too long and perhaps the only criticism is that it could have been edited a fraction more sharply, but at the same time its poetic languor is part of its message.
Most impressive is the total trust his subjects clearly had in him, a trust that was not misplaced. Steiner lets them speak and draws us closer to the strange wisdom of these twenty-first-century nomads.
Above & Below screens tonight at 8:45pm at Rich Mix
You can consult the full programme and buy tickets on the festival's official website
The East End Film Festival runs until July 12th