Breaking from TV's tradition of explaining Indigenous causes, the ABC’s sci-fi drama Cleverman makes no attempt to heal or instruct. By Helen Razer.

ABC TV’s ‘Cleverman’

Inhabitants of “The Zone” in Cleverman.
Inhabitants of “The Zone” in Cleverman.

In this story

Non-Indigenous viewers have long tended to approach the Indigenous screen much in the way our lawmakers approach Indigenous policy settings. Which is to say, with various grades of detachment. We were ourselves unlikely to break this bad habit. But Indigenous television makers just broke it for us with Cleverman, a new ABC1 genre series. Here, detachment is not an option.

Non-Indigenous engagement with this work is not now and never was the point. From the outset, creator Ryan Griffen crafted Cleverman as a super-Indigenous fantasy fiction, first with the amusement only of his small son in mind. This show, named for a superhero played with charming corruptibility by Hunter Page-Lochard, grew to uphold a remarkable ambition and a cast and crew that is 80 per cent Indigenous. The show, which debuted to international audiences earlier this year at Berlinale, situates itself far outside familiar frameworks. Which is to say, it’s not made for white people – or, more particularly, it’s not made to advance the view certain of us have of ourselves as deeply sympathetic to the suffering of others.

Due, I imagine, far less to the intentions of filmmakers than to the anxieties of the organisations that fund them, many big-budget Indigenous works have this liberal function. Such works are made, like medicine, as a tonic for the social body. They are easy for white people to swallow, but they tend to consume their Indigenous stories in the effort to be so widely prescribed.

Cleverman doesn’t bother to do worthy outreach work on behalf of an entire people. It doesn’t even elaborate on the Indigenous mythologies that inform its supernatural narrative: both Griffen and co-director Leah Purcell have said, to an incredulous white television journalist, that these origin stories are already known to those who need to know them and that further explanation for a white audience will not be forthcoming. Cleverman doesn’t try to make me just understand. It doesn’t even suppose that my understanding is valuable. Instead, it tells a story about monsters, some drawn from Dreaming and others, more terrifying, from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

A drama such as Redfern Now, creditable as it was, remained shackled to a humanistic purpose, as did the SBS1 reality TV outing First Contact. Above all else, these programs existed to explain issues to the widest possible audience. While the representational intention here is noble – as much as it is, in all likelihood, actually demanded by television networks and film distributors – it has also become so expected that it is no longer very potent. Personally, I nod off the instant I feel a TV producer wants me to learn and grow. But I’ll abide a night of iView buffering if it means I get to enjoy some slickly produced moral ambiguity. I am sick of good people representing noble causes. As the Cleverman’s sister-in-law, Nerida, played by Jada Alberts, says: “It doesn’t matter how many feel-good stories you tell.”

For a spooky genre show invented for a little kid, Cleverman sure does upturn a few sophisticated intellectual and psychological challenges. In the scene where Nerida offers her advice on storytelling, she is trying to persuade her husband, Waruu, an Indigenous community leader, to desist in his upright media presentations. Waruu, played by Rob Collins, is committed so utterly to the social usefulness of broad understanding that he no longer understands the marginal conditions he purports to represent. Waruu becomes a force only for representation, utterly detached from his surrounds and unable to offer anything but “feel-good stories” to those outside them. Cleverman is not a feel-good story. It is, inter alia, a story about the subjugation of stories.

It is also a sci-fi story, and for this reason it’s playing well around the world. Cleverman is currently showing on the Sundance network in the United States and is shortly scheduled to broadcast in Britain on BBC Three. ABC reports a fairly middling broadcast viewing audience of about 700,000, but a large iView audience. Global torrent sites show a less licit but much more powerful on-demand metric, with the unlawful file regularly appearing in the top-10 download lists hours after it airs. Which makes sense. Fans of speculative fiction do tend to find themselves on the internet.

Real disruptions, however, do not find their way into speculative fictions as often as some fans like to think. Blockbuster shows such as Game of Thrones – whose cast member Iain Glen is on loan to Cleverman – or The Walking Dead might give us genuinely scary monsters, but they don’t give us any genuinely scary ideas. Cleverman, though, is packed with unsettling themes and disturbing dialogue.

Glen, who plays wealthy white philanthropist Jarrod Slade, says in a later episode, “I don’t care what those left liberals say. The only land rights this country respects is freehold title.” The truth of this statement notwithstanding, if this were uttered on Q&A, it’d be the focus for outraged columns in Fairfax for days. “How dare they say the spiritual relationship that Indigenous peoples have to their country is unimportant?” such columnists would ask. But Cleverman asks, “How dare we overlook the way that Slade’s white left liberals allow themselves to see this spiritual connection as a consolation prize for the material theft of land?”

Like a handful of other sci-fi stories – the films District 9 and Starship Troopers among them – this one dares to boldly go where no mere humanist fiction has gone before. While it’s true that speculative narratives offer the potential for great untethered walks in thought, it is also true that they rarely try to occupy this space in anything but a cosplay suited version of the present. Certainly, Cleverman speaks to current conditions – its near-future Indigenous peoples functioning much as Indigenous peoples of the present do, and its newly encountered species of “Hairy” people provoking the same irrational racism asylum seekers now do – but it does not, as is the case with the empty-but-entertaining Thrones, simply reproduce them.

Cleverman is situated in the future but derives its supernatural inspiration from stories that have been long told. The Hairy and the Cleverman are both characters who feature in an ongoing narrative and their appearance on TV, for which permission from elders was sought by Griffen, could be read simply as a celebration of tradition. It’s true that the little boy for whom this show was devised will learn the stories of his ancestor beings but, like many of the texts employed in this show, this one demands a double reading. To see the dreaming world expensively framed on prime time is, I imagine, great and particular relief for many Indigenous Australians. To see Dreaming as the object of a primal, white envy is a first-rate ideological challenge to us all.

Cleverman is not a show by, for or about white people. We do, nonetheless, inhabit its territory and, if we watch closely, we can see that our redemption does not lie in understanding Indigenous culture – feel-good stories are useless – but in understanding ourselves. Our repressed desire to possess the other, to hurt it by demanding that it explain itself and its Dreaming in our terms, returns on Wednesday at 9.30pm.

Other critics have held that this show isn’t as good as everyone thinks it is. I am inclined, particularly after watching an almost-unwatchable scene set in the Hairy brothel, to think that it’s better than is fairly broadly claimed. And, no, that’s not because I think it’s a good allegorical show about “issues” nor is it just the relief any engaged Australian TV viewer feels when anything local gets meaningfully funded. And it’s certainly not because I have patience with sci-fi. I generally despise the stuff and would rather watch even Sky News than one of the many dystopian dramas, à la The 100, currently bleeding from the neoliberal superego of the United States.

The very good thing about Cleverman is that it’s actually a little bit new. Like all new things, this one is a bit shaky and jarring. It’s a risky show that weaves some wonderfully unpopular and savage ideas into a familiar genre and so, understandably, you see some moments where the greatest care is not taken. Monster fans might be a bit disappointed when the Namorrodor emerges, looking a bit like a forgotten boss from a dusty PlayStation One. And, despite its Lord of the Rings special effects provenance, the hair on the Hairy people does look a bit like a synthetic shagpile.

Superhero fans, too, will be frustrated that it takes so long to work out what the Cleverman’s special power actually is – but I’d say this ongoing uncertainty is part of the wonder of the work. Not thinking of the Cleverman as a great individual in the Western tradition might help.

But these problems, and the intrusion by some occasionally wooden acting and a few needless love trysts, do not significantly compromise a show that offers us a patient history of a psychotic nation.

Cleverman is not a gift of gentle understanding. It does not intend to heal. That it diagnoses a national illness – all with the thrill of Deborah Mailman in top form, sucking on a doobie for all she’s worth – makes it pretty special.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2016 as "Hit and myths".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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