"Above and Below": The Universe in the Californian Desert – and Down Below

in 25th Message to Man Saint Petersburg

by Maricke Nieuwdorp

A group of American space travellers wander a seemingly dry, lifeless and inhospitable-looking landscape. Their intensive talks by radio communication about their findings sound however cheerful and energetic. They speak about the possibility of life on Mars and keep in touch and in each others’ eyesight constantly. This is, of course, a serious matter. Where are they? We can just assume they are on a far, far away planet. Until in April, one of the voyagers points out a herd of cows in the nearby area.

This is just one of the many intriguing, kind of unsettling scenes that make Above and Below, the Film Academy graduation piece and first feature-length directorial debut of Nicolas Steiner (1984), stand out from the crowd. The Swiss-born director travelled with his small crew to the United States to portray several inhabitants who, all in their own manner, have established a somewhat remarkable life for themselves. They created lives that surpass the ordinary, some due to trauma and others to pursue a happiness they could not find in the average society.

The title of the artistic documentary portrait comes from the German-Swiss saying ‘Drubär und Drunnär’. Men from a particular region in Switzerland use it to say that harvest grapes haven’t attained the right degree on the Oechsle scale, or to point out that chaotic times are ahead. Especially the last meaning, which can be seen externally, or lies hidden within, was his starting point for this film. The existence of these hideouts and refuges is indeed chaotic, as much as they are also beautiful and wonderful. The Godfather, a somewhat mysterious figure who resides in dark, deep tunnels, functions as a wise, omniscient narrator. Several other characters are in the spotlight – even if they’re underground.

We meet, for instance, couple Dave and Cindy, who live together in the usually dry flood channels that are built under Sin City, Las Vegas. Above, all is glitter, show and full of seduction. But there’s also rejection. Rejection by society as a whole and rejection by loved ones that lead a ‘normal’ life. The couple, which intensely love and fight together, choose this lifestyle consciously. They love being together in their own special underground bubble. And yes, there are some drugs involved too, if they can get hold of some. The rest of their existence consists of collecting stuff for their ‘home’ – until the flood inevitably comes. They lose everything, time and time again. But hey, one can exist without nail polish or dentures. Not without each other.

Then there’s the story of ex-military member April. She and her fellow travellers take a bit of Mars stratosphere to the heated nowhere-land of California. Semi-scientific, they search for answers and solutions for life on Earth. Existence will, in their eyes, most definitely decay. The twenty-something tells of her hard childhood and the rejections she had to endure during that time. All these disappointments in this regular (family) life as we know it, already made her not believe in it as such. She’s young, but nothing keeps her here on this Earth.

Rick, an energetic man with a grey beard, resides in an old military bunker in the middle of the desert. Red ants torture him from time to time, but the solitary life suits him very well, for now at least. In the midst of his beloved instruments and all kinds of machinery he likes to tinker around. He vividly tells about the life and people he left behind in the inhabited world. These people he loves from a distance; the only ‘contact’ is a seldom peak at their Facebook accounts. He loves seeing pictures of the grandkids he never met in real life. It is another sad yet powerful story about how people deal with the life they were given and the creative solutions they came up with to survive in many ways.

Not only did foreigner Steiner manage to infiltrate these isolated American societies, he also went in deep, on several levels. All of his protagonists seem to be very open to this young man from Europe, telling him their sometimes painful life stories. They also allow him to film their not always blooming life. It is definitely not pretty all the time. But Steiner does it in a visually skilful and creative manner. Therefore Above and Below is not your regular documentary about human life: the art of cinema is in this case just as important. Just as the stories of the protagonists, the imagery, the well thought-out, kick-ass soundtrack are all exceptional. Several scenes become alienating moments where one might wonder: where are we? And what are we actually looking at? What does it all mean? The sum of all parts seems a bit melancholic, however, even as the sometimes tragic stories are intertwined with lighthearted, pleasantly absurd images.

Edited by Carmen Gray