Actress Cate Blanchett
Prowling the boards of The Arts Theatre, a rectangular light-blue brick building opened for amateur repertory productions in Adelaide in 1963, Cate Blanchett is about to give a tightly controlled performance, fronting a small jazz-swing band. Her hair is in a silver bob, her red lipstick thickly applied. Holding a microphone in her right hand as the left holds the train of her sparkly off-the-shoulder gold dress, she sings “Let’s Get Away from It All”, a number popularised by Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney: Let’s take a boat to Bermuda, let’s take a plane to St Paul …
Blanchett’s singing is mellifluous and her hips are swaying, but the context of this scene, set in the early 2000s, is ironic and grotesque. She’s playing Pat who, alongside her husband Gordon (Dominic West of The Affair), runs a cult named GOPA – Growing One’s Potential Achievement – and at this eisteddfod, Pat announces one of the fee-paying acolytes dancing in the hall will be awarded the “trophy of transformation” for having opened themselves up. All eyes are on lead dancer Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski of The Handmaid’s Tale), who has quit her flight attendant job to fulfil her promised destiny.
In the six-part television series Stateless, airing on the ABC from March 1, Sofie is cast out of GOPA, assumes a German national’s identity and ends up among rioting Middle Eastern asylum seekers at Barton Immigration Detention Centre in the desert. Barton is a fictional version of the real, remote Woomera and Baxter facilities, now closed but part of the system of mandatory detention introduced under then prime minister Paul Keating for “unlawful arrivals” in 1992. In parallel, we also witness the terrible sea journeys that Afghan refugee Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) and his wife and two daughters must confront.
Five years ago, in the kitchen of her home in Sydney’s Hunters Hill, Blanchett and her high school friend Elise McCredie were talking about their shared interest in the global displacement crisis, particularly after the September 11 terror attacks and the Howard government’s refusal to allow the MV Tampa and the 433 refugees onboard to enter Australian waters in 2001. Blanchett’s original idea was sparked by the true story of an Australian woman who fell through the cracks of the mental health and criminal justice systems and was erroneously locked up in immigration detention.
Blanchett, in Toronto while filming a new Guillermo del Toro film, Nightmare Alley, says she wants Stateless to pose questions “rather than be a piece of agitprop that proposes answers”. Blanchett and McCredie, who co-created Stateless with Tony Ayres, emphasise this story is “inspired by” rather than “based on” true events, and that the characters are amalgams. The initial real-life inspiration is clearly Cornelia Rau, locked up for 10 months in 2004 and 2005, but Stateless is not Rau’s story, and Blanchett purposefully avoids mentioning Rau’s name.
During the riot in the show, a Middle Eastern refugee tells Sofie she needs to be seen by the media because, he tells her, “they will want to know why someone who looks like them is in a place like this”. Might the parallel storylines of Sofie and Ameer be a way of steering viewers to understand their shared human suffering, despite their different appearances, language and customs?
“There was a genuine asking, ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Why did this happen?’ ” recalls Blanchett, now based with her playwright husband, Andrew Upton, and their four children in East Sussex, Britain. “We then got fascinated by everyone else who touched the system. Australia is an intellectually, culturally rich place, visually rich, it’s resources rich, but the rhetoric of border protection has been exported to Britain, to UKIP [the United Kingdom Independence Party], to the wall [with Mexico] that’s being built in the US, to what’s happening in Italy, Greece and Turkey. It’s a global story. It’s not geo-locked to Australia.”
Blanchett’s character Pat sings “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, a Bing Crosby favourite, in the show’s opening moments, suggesting a big bubble of denial. In a later scene, though, she lingers in the upstairs theatre window looking down at Sofie’s sister Margot (Marta Dusseldorp), who is searching for her sibling. Is Pat also a victim of circumstance?
“Elise kept saying to me, ‘Pat is Australia,’ ” says Blanchett, laughing. “Very few of us step away from the window. How did she get there, and at what point do we decide to bear witness to things that we know [are] happening but we feel we don’t have any responsibility to do anything about? … There’s no country that’s not like this, but there are dark sides to sunny Australia. It’s whether we play to that, or speak to our better natures.”
Since the period of Baxter and Woomera, however, Australia has kept asylum-seeker and refugee detainees out of sight, more recently with no prospect of being resettled on the mainland. McCredie, joining the conversation from Melbourne, says: “When the camps were onshore, when they had these desert camps, advocates could turn up there, and even though there was restricted access, media still did try to fly over, they still did camp out the front. There was an accountability. Once what was happening in these centres blew open, suddenly there was no visibility. That is really critical.”
Blanchett adds: “The rhetoric of protection and the language has separated Australians from their humanity, and encouraged the public through a lack of transparency in information to tolerate or ignore human rights abuses that are going on offshore, so you do ask yourself [why] people who have the legal right to seek asylum are suddenly criminalised and labelled as illegal, under the notion of protection; that it’s all to do with our ‘identity’ and who we are as Australians and ‘doing it for our nation’.
“But you know, the notion of nationhood is rarely peaceful, or forward-looking, and so what we’re trying to do is reverse-engineer how we got here as a so-called nation, and what we’re prepared to tolerate.”
It is the eve of Kevin Rudd’s election. Blanchett and Upton’s two eldest boys are restless down the back of the family’s Sydney home, and Blanchett is expecting their third child. The couple are about to assume the reins as co-artistic directors of Sydney Theatre Company, a role they will share until 2013. Sydney, Upton tells me, is a “very optimistic city” that can be a “bit light on the foot”.
Their own mood is very optimistic in November 2007: Blanchett says she feels unafraid to break the momentum of her film career because theatre is “less literal, more poetic and non-naturalistic” than film. “Hopefully it will make me a better actor,” she says. “People said, before we had children, that life would be forever changed, slightly in the negative, in relation to one’s work. I only found it positive and expansive.” I sign off from the interview. “Have a good day tomorrow,” says Blanchett. “Big day,” I suggest. “Big day!” the pair chime loudly in unison, laughing. With all signs pointing to a Labor victory, the future seems progressive after 11 years of John Howard’s rule.
Indeed, the election sweeps Howard from his own seat of Bennelong. Rudd brings progressive change with an apology to the Stolen Generations, and dismantles Howard’s Pacific Solution, pledging a “firm but fair” border security policy. In 2008, he holds the Australia 2020 Summit in Canberra, casting an eye to the nation’s future, and Blanchett is a delegate. I speak to Blanchett again that October, and she enthuses about a “long and meaningful” relationship between artists and political leaders, hoping it means an “ongoing dialogue and a reawakening of the creative songlines”.
The years tick by. Julia Gillard replaces Kevin Rudd in 2010 and in 2012 Labor reintroduces offshore processing. Rudd regains the leadership in 2013, announcing people who arrive by boat will never be resettled in Australia. The policy hardens further when the Coalition comes to power in 2013 under Tony Abbott: the Operation Sovereign Borders strategy of boat turnbacks, offshore processing with no resettlement prospect in Australia, and a further tightening of information around arrivals are all implemented under then Immigration minister Scott Morrison and his successor, Peter Dutton. The subsequent prime ministers, Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison, hold the hard line.
As for those creative songlines, Morrison announced last year a new super ministry would drop “arts” from its title, proving his government was impervious to artists. What does Blanchett make of that particular development now that 2020 has arrived? “Oh, we’ve got roads and rail though!” she jokes. “You talk about songlines – we’ve got roads and rail.”
Regarding Australia’s treatment of refugees, Blanchett says: “So much has been compressed into a short period of time. When the Tampa decision was laid down, there was a political expediency about it [post-September 11] and that in and of itself didn’t create the current situation of Manus and Nauru, but it certainly laid the landscape for the ‘no asylum seeker who arrives here by boat will ever settle here’ 2013 declaration by Kevin Rudd. Stateless is looking at a terrain created by a series of political decisions.
“I really want to ask: how does spending $9 billion [on offshore processing and detention from 2016 to 2020] to keep a handful of people out make economic sense? Forget the human cost. The separation of families. Self-harm. The loss of hope. The despair. The absolute contravening of the Declaration of Human Rights. Forget that for one second – how does spending $9 billion to keep between 800 and 1000 people out of Australia, and saying they’re never going to come here, how does that make economic sense? I genuinely don’t understand that.”
Blanchett may be busy with her international acting career in North America and Britain, but her social concerns have become more global. In 2016 she was named a UNHCR goodwill ambassador. She went to settlements in Bangladesh and warned of a race against time for Rohingya refugees because of the pending monsoon season. Does she see an inevitable rise in refugees as a result of global warming?
“Oh, definitely there are climate refugees,” she says. “Refugees are doing nothing that you and I would not do in those circumstances. If there is no water, if there is famine, if there is profound flood, if there is an earthquake, what are you going to do? Over half of the world’s refugees are under 10. They’re children. You meet these people and find yourself in Canberra talking about figures and numbers. Of course climate has an enormous impact upon it. It’s all interconnected.”
Earlier this year while presenting an award at the Golden Globes, Blanchett made special mention of the “volunteer firefighters who have been at the centre of battling the climate disaster that is facing Australia”.
What does Blanchett make of the Morrison government’s efforts towards reducing carbon emissions? She pauses for a moment. “I think it’s just a ‘dot, dot, dot, question mark’. In the same way we’ve watched the language towards the most vulnerable, being suddenly told that we’re under threat [from them], in the same way that you watch the CSIRO and the world’s most pre-eminent climate scientists who have come out of Australia being lampooned.
“We’ve allowed the government to do it to ourselves. It’s so distressing. So many of the great scientific minds have come out of Australia. But why have we learnt so little and acted so little?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "Citizen Cate".
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