Hot Docs 2015: Above and Below Review

International Spectrum

A stylistic and visually daring film on loneliness and isolation, Nicolas Steiner’s Above and Below delves into the lives of individuals on the margins of society, each of whom make their homes in various “bunkers,” including the flood channels of Las Vegas, a rustic, DIY bunker in the California desert, and a simulated Martian habitat in Utah.

The most obvious achievement of Above and Below is the cinematography. Being shot on a wider aspect ratio with due consideration to framing/composition and colour graded to a level rivalling mainstream Hollywood pictures. The less obvious, but far more impressive feat is the overall narrative structure that favours gradual revelation of its subjects rather than cramming exposition at the outset of the film.  Steiner and his editor are content to reveal their subjects, piecemeal over a two-hour running time, allowing us get to know them over time, drawing us into their world and, hopefully, leaving us with some better understanding of their everyday struggles and dreams. 

Employing sophisticated cross-cutting throughout the film, Steiner makes graphic and thematic links between his subjects, their respective settings and the action on screen with each shot, carefully spliced in and designed to carry the narrative forward. My only complaint would be the overuse of montage sequences, employed as chapter breaks, appearing a routine intervals; while beautifully paced and visually delightful, their cumulative effect is one of gradually slowing down the momentum, particularly towards the final third of the film. 

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I recommend Above and Beyond for its exploration of difficult, often ontological subject matter in a frank, engaging manner that is exceedingly visual, entertaining and accessible.

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