Jour­ney into a dystopian fu­ture that melds in­dige­nous sto­ry­telling with the block­buster nar­ra­tive of a su­per­hero ad­ven­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell Clev­er­man

Amer­i­can critic John Simon once said the hall­mark of a good movie is that it stays in your mind: cer­tain images, scenes, bits of di­a­logue — even a mo­ment here, an ex­pres­sion there — be­come part of your ex­pe­ri­ence just as if you had lived them (which in a sense you have). It’s the way I felt af­ter watch­ing the first episode of the bril­liant and mag­i­cal Clev­er­man, a genre-bend­ing, dystopian six-part sci-fi thriller from Goal­post Pic­tures Aus­tralia and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pic­tures for ABC TV, co-pro­duced with Sun­dance TV and Ger­man dis­trib­u­tor Red Ar­row In­ter­na­tional.

It’s a star­tlingly orig­i­nal high-con­cept story: lit­er­ate, clever and imag­i­na­tive. And it should prove very pop­u­lar. (As I write, it’s just been an­nounced that the se­ries has been picked up by the BBC.)

Its many creators dis­play a tal­ent for im­agery that is un­usu­ally provoca­tive, not for any gore dis­played, though there’s plenty of that, but for the range and qual­ity of ideas ex­pressed and the vis­ceral jolt that ac­com­pa­nies their un­rav­el­ling. It over­laps the block­buster nar­ra­tive of su­per­heroes — the way they deal with deep per­sonal, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues — with 60,000 years of sto­ry­telling in Aus­tralian in­dige­nous cul­ture to cre­ate a mov­ing and riv­et­ing re­la­tion­ship drama.

“I have a huge love of su­per­heroes and comics. It got me think­ing about cre­at­ing some­thing cul­tural that my young son could con­nect to on a su­per­hero ba­sis,” says cre­ator Ryan Grif­fen. “I wanted to bring some­thing Abo­rig­i­nal, in­dige­nous, to that world. As the son of a light-skinned Abo­rig­i­nal man and a light-skinned Abo­rig­i­nal woman, it was im­por­tant for me that my son had a cul­tural su­per­hero that he could look up to as a young Abo­rig­i­nal per­son … some­thing he could con­nect to that was also entertaining.”

Wayne Blair, di­rec­tor of Aus­tralian box of­fice smash hit The Sap­phires, also pro­duced by Goal­post Pic­tures, is lead di­rec­tor, with ac­claimed di­rec­tor, writer, ac­tress and per­former Leah Pur­cell also helm­ing episodes. Pukeko Pic­tures is as­so­ci­ated with renowned Weta Workshop ( Lord of the Rings, among many oth­ers) and it worked along­side Ja­cob Nash from the Ban­garra Dance Company in pro­vid­ing much of the design. And breath­tak­ing it is too, as is a cast that in­cludes Scot­tish actor Iain Glen ( Game of Thrones), Golden Globe nom­i­nee Frances O’Con­nor ( The Miss­ing), Deborah Mail­man ( The Sap­phires), Robyn Nevin ( Top of the Lake) and vet­eran in­dige­nous actor Jack Charles ( The Gods of Wheat Street).

The el­e­gant plot, com­bin­ing a mind-stretch­ing idea with a very hu­man story, pro­vides a good dose of shocks. The show’s writ­ers, Michael Miller, Jon Bell and Jane Allen, have con­structed it in a way that pushes the lim­its of the real — pre­sented in a cool, noirish aes­thetic — to tell deeper but still plau­si­ble sto­ries. The nar­ra­tive moves swiftly and there is enough mo­men­tum for us to main­tain sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief and not ques­tion the logic too closely. The writ­ers don’t fix­ate on their plot points; they sim­ply al­low us to as­sim­i­late them rapidly as the story rushes us forward, set­ting up ques­tions for us to pon­der as we watch. Their plot twists and turns tor­tu­ously, de­mand­ing that we mas­ter a spe­cialised vo­cab­u­lary to fol­low it, one of its many de­lights.

In the very near fu­ture, crea­tures from an­cient mythol­ogy have sud­denly emerged and must co­ex­ist with hu­mans, and as the show opens a se­ries of un­ex­plained vi­o­lent at­tacks oc­curs in the city, which is a kind of fu­tur­is­tic Syd­ney, tawdry and neon-bleary. (It’s the sort of retro-fit­ting em­ployed so fa­mously by Ri­d­ley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Run­ner — the fu­ture built in and around the rub­ble of the present.)

Known as Hairypeo­ple for the mat­ted cov­er­ing of their bod­ies, they look hu­man apart from their hir­sute qual­ity, and have ex­tra­or­di­nary strength, speed and longevity. But they are so­cial mis­fits, os­tracised for their oth­er­ness and eas­ily blamed for the violence. They share some things with the in­dige­nous com­mu­nity — knowl­edge of land, cul­ture and Dream­ing — and speak an in­dige­nous lan­guage, Gum­bayn­g­girr, from Aus­tralia’s east coast. At the same time, they are un­like hu­mans, with dif­fer­ent DNA. The ma­jor­ity of Hairypeo­ple are “shavers” (those who learn English and choose to re- move their hair to blend in with so­ci­ety), but some are “non-shavers” who de­fi­antly live their lives as they al­ways have — cov­ered in a thick coat of hair from head to toe, and of­ten speak­ing their tra­di­tional lan­guage.

They seek refuge in The Zone: a frag­ile, locked-off com­mu­nity also con­tain­ing in­dige­nous peo­ple and those of other eth­nic ori­gins, the dis­en­fran­chised and the poor. Fugi­tives and fight­ers, they’re al­ways on the run from raids man­dated by the mil­i­taris­tic Con­tain­ment Au­thor­ity, a gov­ern­ment-funded body es­tab­lished to cap­ture run­away Hairypeo­ple.

A bril­liant first scene sets the con­text. A group of young men vi­o­lently ha­rasses and seeks to sex­u­ally ter­rorise a young dark­skinned woman on a bus, but pulling back her sleeve, they are ter­ri­fied. “There’s a hairy on the bus,” one shouts, and she erupts and hurls them about the ve­hi­cle. It had me cheer­ing.

One cho­sen be­ing with mys­te­ri­ous pow­ers — the Clev­er­man — has the abil­ity to bring these worlds back to­gether, but when Un­cle Jimmy (Charles) has his heart ripped out on a beach by a beast called a Namor­rodor, his nephew Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) be­comes the new Clev­er­man. He’s a young man in de­nial of his cul­ture and es­tranged from his fam­ily. His half-brother, the charis­matic Waruu (Rob Collins), is a spir­i­tual man with a hard edge, and he be­lieves he is the pro­tec­tor of his peo­ple, the nat­u­ral heir to the Clev­er­man pow­ers. Waruu’s re­al­i­sa­tion that his reck­less younger brother has been cho­sen threat­ens to un­hinge him, while Koen, treach­er­ous and vi­o­lent, must de­cide to which tribe he be­longs.

Clev­er­man takes us imag­i­na­tively into a bru­tal, ugly world that, for all the hairies and heavi- ly armed riot cops stomp­ing around, feels sadly fa­mil­iar. The al­le­gories might be a lit­tle ob­vi­ous but they’re han­dled with­out po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing. How­ever, it’s im­pos­si­ble not to think of the in­dige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence in this coun­try and also the hor­ror sto­ries of rape, self-harm and self-im­mo­la­tion pour­ing out of Manus Is­land and Nauru.

The se­ries re­minds one a lit­tle of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and the way it drama­tises how crim­i­nally easy it can be to marginalise peo­ple who look or act dif­fer­ently.

Blair demon­strates a con­trolled and as­sertive flu­id­ity with his di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, Mark Ware­ham, mov­ing their cam­eras around var­i­ous dystopian in­te­ri­ors with the sort of as­sur­ance ac­quired in tele­vi­sion from work­ing in lim­ited spa­ces. Ware­ham con­trasts this with a wide-shot aes­thetic at times, cap­tur­ing vast busted land­scapes and the il­lu­sion of phys­i­cal depth and dis­tance. This brings a den­sity to the re­la­tions be­tween the char­ac­ters, a be­liev­able to­pog­ra­phy. This is some­thing Ware­ham al­ways nails in his work and it’s achieved here with not a wasted move­ment — each glimpse of a scene not only tells us where we are but what ten­sions ex­ist be­tween peo­ple and place.

The act­ing, too, has just the right stamp of authen­tic­ity, the cast with few ex­cep­tions strik­ing no false notes and the two young leads both out­stand­ing. And the vet­eran Charles — so good in The Gods of Wheat Street — steals the first episode with a lu­mi­nous per­for­mance as Un­cle Jimmy, a shaman with be­lea­guered voices in his head who re­asserts the power of the Clev­er­man in ways no one might have ex­pected. His face is at once as in­no­cent as a baby’s and as as­tute as a pro­fes­sional card dealer’s, one of the few things Charles hasn’t been in his ex­tra­or­di­nary life. It’s a face, ringed by that al­most ce­les­tial mane of white hair, that through the slight­est glint of an eye, the mer­est flicker of a smile, can melt the most frigid of au­di­ences. And his voice is haunt­ingly ethe­real and in­ti­mate. The man is a treasure, like so many in this won­der­ful cast. pre­mieres on Thurs­day, 9.30pm, ABC.

Clev­er­man’s Iain Glen, Hunter PageLochard and Rob Collins, top; Jack Charles, left

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