above and below


One needs only turn on the television to see humanity’s fascination with the notion of survival.

Perhaps it is the fear of our own mortality, the apparent fragility of the human race, or with the very notion that we may one day no longer live as we do. What has allowed the human race to prosper, evolve, and grow to be the most powerful organisms on this planet? It cannot be denied that we have an instinct of survival from birth; without it, we could not exist. As Jeff Goldblum famously says, “Life finds a way.”

But “survival” is a very different notion for many people. Adversity, the volatility of nature, the earth’s inevitable decline into an inhospitable wasteland: these are but a few of the things that we must all weather each day. ABOVE AND BELOW examines the very notion of survival by introducing us to five people all fighting for it, in their own unique ways.

Cindy and Rick live in the tunnels beneath Las Vegas, a “playground for adults” which also has one of the largest populations of homeless in the United States. Beneath the Sin City, thousands of men and women struggle to eek out a living in what can only be described as a sewer. If hunger, poverty, and drug addiction don’t kill them, the periodic waves of water from the sporadic but intense desert rainfall will.

Another man, Lalo, lives a more solitary life in the sewers, choosing to isolate himself even further from society by not joining one of the many communities beneath. They are tragic heroes, finding more and more creative ways to continue to survive. But, like humanity as a whole, they are perhaps their own worst enemies. Yet they still continue to fight, even when they know that at any moment water could wash away everything they’ve worked so hard to build.

Dave is technically homeless, living off of food stamps and solar power in an abandoned military bunker in the desert. He entertains himself with work, music, and musings on life. After his second wife took all of his money to fuel her drug addiction, he was left destitute. He has little to no contact with his family, even his daughters and grandchildren. He has made the rare decision to eschew the confines of modern life and instead reinvents himself alone in the stark wasteland of the Nevada desert.

In an even more isolated and harsh part of the desert, April is part of a team of NASA scientists preparing for a mission to Mars that may or may not happen in their lifetime. They run experiments and procedural missions, throwing all of their hopes into the idea that one day human kind will escape their dying planet and begin new life on another. April is also escaping her own troubled past; a mother that didn’t want her, a father in a biker gang who left before she was born, and the memories of her time serving in Iraq all haunt her. She is still conflicted about whether a trip to Mars is even a good idea. If we have treated this planet so terribly, should we really continue to spread the destruction off-world?

Director Nicolas Steiner peels back these complicated stories so slowly that they only truly begin to take shape as the film nears it’s end, a strategy which invests a great deal of confidence that his audience will be able to hold on for that long. The beautiful and desolate vignettes he paints seem to view his subjects as a foreign species, a metaphor for the bigger idea of “man”, and he the silent observer of the many eccentricities and hypocrisies of our race. The film is at times poignant, in others inaccessible. While there are moments when the thesis of the film is lost amongst its strange fixations, there is an inherent poetry and beauty to the imagery that cannot be denied.

In the end, it feels hopeful. No matter what adversity we face, humans seem incapable of giving up. This, perhaps, will be the thing that saves us from ourselves.

ABOVE AND BELOW plays at Hot Docs 2015 today, Wednesday April 29th – 1:30pm at The Lightbox. It plays twice on Sunday May 3rd – 3:45pm at The Lightbox, and finally at Isabel Bader Theatre  – 6:30pm (official website)