6 December 2022

Cleverman – drawing on Dreaming to explore issues of today

Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggles to accept the responsibilities and powers of being the Cleverman.

By Wendy Knowlton

4 July 2016

The ABC’s Cleverman is certainly not comfortable viewing. In this dystopian near future, all of humanity’s cruelty, violence and prejudice are on display, but the disturbing truth is that none of it can be dismissed as the stuff of fantasy. The newly discovered Hairypeople, long-lived and super strong, are seen as the latest alien threat. Confined to the Zone and subject to detention, torture or exploitation if captured elsewhere, they have divided a community. Fears have been exacerbated by a series of gruesome murders for which this species is a convenient scapegoat. Echoes of the ghettos and concentration camps of World War II, Guantanamo Bay and the policy of Rendition, or current border control practices and rhetoric mean that science fiction and horror mingle with current social issues.

Cleverman’s point of difference lies in its use of Indigenous actors and mythology. The “Hairies” use the Gumbaynggirr language and series creator, Ryan Griffen, spoke to the Elders of many tribes and collected their stories about the Cleverman – the conduit between the world and the Dreaming. Flawed activist Waruu West (Rob Collins) had expected the powers and responsibilities of this role to pass to him when his Uncle Jimmy died, but Waruu’s half brother Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard) is chosen instead. Whilst Waruu may be an unfaithful husband, prepared to commit violence to achieve his ends, he is an idealist with a mission. Koen, however, works in a bar and informs on Hairies for reward. Suddenly blessed with healing and prophetic powers he has the potential to generate change, but little interest in being some saviour.

This is a world in which the power of words can be devastating. When a family betrayed by Koen is captured and their youngest daughter shot, this becomes the “death of a sub-human minor” and Minister Geoff Matthews (Andrew McFarlane) dismisses accusations of “violating human rights” since these “dangerous and unpredictable” creatures must be controlled in order to make the “city a safer place.” Djukara (Tysan Towney) escapes imprisonment and is faced with the necessity of denying his identity, shaving down to “pass” for human. Araluen (a heartbreaking combination of stoicism and pain from Tasma Walton) is plunged into the humiliation and horror of enforced prostitution for those whose fascination with her species means exploitation becomes recreation. Latani (Rarriwuy Hick in an emotionally charged performance) evades capture but must endure the media’s distorted view of her family and their respective fates.

This is the most sinister aspect of Cleverman. Media magnate Jarrod Slade (Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen) can manipulate what the world is told whilst serving his own purposes. Experiments with “Hairyjuice” are being carried out in secret labs, as he obviously tries to harness the strength and psychic abilities of this species. Shades of Dr Mengele hover as both animal and human subjects are sacrificed to serve his desires.

With a second series commissioned, and the combination of a strong local and Indigenous cast and international stars such as Iain Glen and Frances O’Connor, Cleverman has the potential to continue to intrigue and horrify.

Cleverman screens on the ABC Thursday at 8.30. Rated M.

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