There’s less and less being made unless it’s a superhero movie, complained the Aussie director Jocelyn Moorehouse (The Dressmaker, Proof, etc) in the SMH last week. Well that’s the opposite of the view taken by tyro Indigenous film-maker Ryan Griffen, who’s spent the last 6 years developing the forthcoming ABC TV series, ‘Cleverman‘ because he was determined to give his son an Aboriginal super-hero.
Not that young Koen Griffen will be able to identify straight away when the series starts at 9.30pm on June 2nd. For the Koen in the show (yes, named after him) is a very reluctant hero in episodes 1 and 2; indeed, he’s a rotter in the first. Not just a rotter, a people smuggler! But this rebirth of genre to Australia, inspired by films from the 1950s through to the 80s (in Griffen’s words) is not just high adventure. It’s got quite a number of topical debates bubbling beneath the surface waving their arms in the undertow of genre “ Aboriginal politics, Redfern politics, refugees and the role of our Border Force, the role of the media, IVF, Cain & Able, even Samson and Delilah (the biblical ones not the brilliant Warwick Thornton movie). And then there are the hierarchies of Superpowers “ borrowed, according to Griffen with all due protocol, from Indigenous mythology.
At the lower end of the scale are some fairly unhappy Aborigines. Their hang-out in Redfern (with a strong look of Everleigh’s railway sheds) has been walled up by the authorities. Their hospitality has lead to them inviting in a bunch of Hairies “ on the next rung up the ladder “ who have emerged from deep legend into contemporary Sydney life from sources unrevealed so far in the series. They have great speed and strength as well as masses of hair all over their bodies, and these factors are pronounced a threat to ordinary Australia “ just a little reminiscent of anti-Islamic tricks played by corrupt French police in the current film, ‘Bastille Day’. The (possibly corrupt) Minister for Border Protection is determined to get Hairies off the streets and into containment “ Redfern, and some nasty prison camps out of sight, though nowhere near as far or nasty as Nauru.
Emerging to come to the rescue is a one-man Superhero, the Cleverman. We first of all meet the ancient, iconic Jack Charles as Uncle Jimmy, capable of reviving the dead with his breath, but choosing to retire from the scene and the world. He’s decided to hand over the nulla nulla (literally) to Koen (the people smuggler), his nephew with a white mother, in preference to Waruu, who’s been expecting the call and is a already natural leader of the Redfern mob. Cue Cain and Able. But also cue the Namorrodor, an unseen horror from the skies who hacks out Uncle Jimmy’s heart, seemingly at Jimmy’s behest in order to complete the circle. So we don’t know quite which side this ultimate superhero is on “ is it something that can be called up by the Cleverman, or a power beyond control.
I haven’t been able to trace any mention of this Namorrodor in any book of Indigenous mythology. And the only reference to a Cleverman I found is in James Cowan’s ‘Myths of the Dreaming‘, where he calls them mekigars, with access to celestial cords (like Jack’s Beanstalk) which allow them to travel across country magically or to climb into the skies to seek the advice of Dreaming heroes.
As for the Hairies, they certainly exist in Yuin legend from South Coast NSW, called Doolagarls. A Doolagarl is a man like a gorilla. He has long spindly legs. He has a big chest and long swinging arms. His forehead goes back from his eyebrows. His head goes into his shoulders. He has no neck. The Doolagarl lives in the Cockawhy and Polawonbera Mountains. (Roland Robinson’s ‘Aboriginal Myths and Legends’ “ sounding dangerously like the now discredited early descriptions of Mungo Man!) And he’s a threat to life and limb, as, counter intuitively are the Hairies Ryan Griffen heard about around Toomelah, who lived in the hills and were used as no-go threat to children. Will his Hairies turn out to be threats or saviours?
As political ‘threats’, though, there’s no doubt about the Minister for Border Protection’s use of them as an excuse to erect razor-wire fences and remote concentration camps where Hairy hero Djukara tries to challenge the brutal guards without significant evidence of superhero powers. In response, like Samson, he’s shorn. There is doubt, however, about the role of the press “ represented by a Channel 8 TV baron with political connections that suggest he’s manipulating the news for the Minister’s ends. Couldn’t happen in Australia, could it! He also has personal problems with a wife played by the lovely Frances O’Connor, who works as a medic in the Redfern containment area.
So many possibilities. And such an Indigenous heart to the series. But I immediately recalled Peter Weir’s 1977 film ‘The Last Wave’ where Nandjiwarra Amagula (an Elder from Groote Eylandt) and David Gulpilil proved to Richard Chamberlain (from America) that hidden Aboriginal knowledge could predict a tsunami which would destroy Sydney. It’s bloody hard to weave such arcane and esoteric belief systems into contemporary city life, even in an age where sexy vampires run rampant on TV screens the world over. Look how long it took the complexity of Papunya painting to find acceptance in the art world even though that was precisely what the Papunya Elders had wanted when they opened the doors to their culture.
So ‘Cleverman‘ doesn’t totally suspend disbelief. For me it offers just too much genre and not enough believable mythology to hold the edifice up, despite the best efforts of Wayne Blair as director.
But how great to see someone trying, speaking Gumbaynggir (the Hairies) and Bandjalung (the Cleverman), and being seen in the US, Britain and NZ