In the world of Cleverman, the Dreaming is mentioned here with the same condescension it might be on an actual TV weekly news and current affairs panel. I’ve seen enough Aboriginal Elders and commentators on such shows to know that Collins did not have to look very far to inspire his character’s reaction in this moment. As an Indigenous man himself, Collins probably didn’t even need that.
In the make-believe dystopian near future of Cleverman, not six months before the action takes up with the first episode, the Dreaming just materialised in the form of the Hairypeople. What was once thought of as just an Aboriginal story and a monster to scare children, is now flesh and blood. They are an entirely different species of human that is stronger, faster, harder, covered in hair, and absolutely not a figment of some distant story derived from an uncivilised past. This narrative fact makes the host’s condescension in this scene all the more misplaced, purposefully nasty.
[Above: Q&A Monday 09 June, 2014. Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ “I am not the problem” speech, in conversation regarding John Pilger’s Utopia.]
This point in the show also created a moment during which, it was white Australian viewers’ turn to shift uncomfortably in their seats, if they had not already. In that scene, with its similarity to real day-to-day viewing, it felt like director Wayne Blair, and writers Michael Miller and Jon Bell were speaking directly to us. And I confess: it was my turn for a little bit of solidarity with my Indigenous Brothers and Sisters fist pumping. Waruu’s statement contained within it something that could easily translate to my own experience as a Pagan and a Witch: Our Mythos. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as the Otherworlds are not bound by what is.
Cleverman is a futuristic sci-fi narrative told using the contemporary language of television and chocked full of very real and very current issues. Included in its themes are Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, forced imprisonment, our nation’s crimes against humanity, as well as the physical, mental, and emotional trauma suffered at our hands by those most vulnerable: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, immigrants, and refugees. Additionally, the show includes the Scientific Frankenstein, the Shady Media Mogul, themes of fear, terror, racism, bigotry, atrocity, isolation, desperation, violence, and police brutality.
These details are all woven together in a sprawling story that we should in fact not be confused about at all. However, it is the twist with which it’s told that is the real highlight. The fictional Hairypeople are lifted directly from several Aboriginal Dreaming stories. They speak Gumbaynggirr, a language from northern New South Wales, as is the Namorrodor, the monster stalking urban Sydney. Indigenous actors dominate in both the Indigenous and Hairypeople roles. The Cleverman is a cultural facticity.
Our reluctant hero Koen West, is Aboriginal, a refreshing change from what we so often see highlighted by Australian and international news. Koen, an opportunistic young Indigenous man who refuses to choose a tribe, has suddenly had the Cleverman superhero powers thrust upon him. The power is real and present in this show’s world. It is manifest in Koen, Waruu, in the Hairypeople, and in the short (but always sparkling) performance of Jack Charles as Uncle Jimmy the Cleverman who passes the nulla nulla (or waddi a warrior’s club) of the Cleverman onto Koen.
If Koen stands as a proxy for young Indigenous viewers, then the narrative comes with a dare: Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Dreaming is not static. None are left to wonder about the nature of that strength and power. It’s Indigenous and it comes from a very real place.
In this way, Cleverman is the Dreaming. The show is Indigenous story soaked with a real Indigenous past and a contemporary Indigenous experience. With the help of CGI and special effects, the show demonstrates how the Dreaming contains within it the ability to confront new issues and problems with no less potency. The Dreaming refuses to stay static.
The Dreaming is not at odds with western science, political systems, media, or indeed, the future. Rather, here, the Dreaming uses all these modern ideas and formats to its own end. Standing alongside these contemporary mainstream Australian institutions as equally valid and powerful, the show tells a story of change, of how it is made manifest in those who engage with it, and how it can reclaim itself – its Indigenousness – from those very institutions who have sought to diminish it. The Dreaming claims itself, as strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, in the now.
It is here, precisely at this moment, that Australian Pagans and Witches should feel the pangs of empathy. This is art as story magic.
In the first place, we should be familiar with the historical arc that underpins the show. In summary, cultural practices, myths and stories are outlawed, then, after a time, they are repackaged as oddities from a distant past for children’s entertainment. Then, finally, adults start taking these “oddities” back.
Pagans around the world know this story. In recent times, we have seen a major resurgence in many myths and folktales. Appearing on the small and silver screens alike, these stories are being torn apart and remade with entirely relevant themes and contemporary issues, and very often strictly for adults. Examples range from American Horror Story: Coven‘s unabashed, subversive femaleness in all its complicated and messy glory; to the miraculous image at the end of The Witch showing power embraced as the young protagonist is liberated; to Michael Hirst’s Vikings in which a historical Pagan worldview is given prominence over early Christian ideas. Even at Disney, the early and mid-20th Century children’s stories are being approached anew, with the likes of Angelina Jolie’s turn as the Mistress of All Evil in Maleficent. We get this.
However, these things – our myths, reimagined in the mainstream, artistic, and pop culture spheres – can serve to be a hindrance to the legitimisation of contemporary Pagan and Witchcraft discourse. They can be wildly disrespectful and further propagate tired tropes and negative stereotypes that influence the very real lives of the Neopagan and Witchcraft communities. These things do not exist in a vacuum. But at their best, they can serve as a powerful quickening to such communities, who, in turn, find the inspiration to readdress the magical and mythical narratives within the ritual space itself.
These modern retellings can normalise themes and ideas in the mainstream, which can then further legitimise those same ideas as they are contained within our contemporary discourse. The young and aspiring seeker of the Craft, for example, can find heroes and heroines in these places, urging them to look further.
Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Myths are not static.
As a story and as a Dreaming narrative, Cleverman excels at demonstrating that power is best realised through the creative vision, voice and bodies of those who are living a direct experience of it already. Inside contemporary culture, it further demonstrates the power of community support and participation required to push forward with these new narratives. Cleverman‘s mainstream success and positive reviews are a testament to two hundreds years of fighting to legitimise Indigenous voices.
This is a lesson Pagans in Australia can take away. It is a salient reminder that our own myths are strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, now.
Especially as Australian Pagan communities begin to increasingly realise their social and political voices, it is this thought that should stay in the back of our minds when we engage with Pagan discourse, writing, art, and craft, and reimagine our stories inside our ritual space to confront and work with contemporary and very real social and political issues. It is important to promote that same creative talent inside our communities in order to achieve change, justice, fairness, highlight social issues right now.
These ideas and concepts are all on top of the stand-alone joy of engaging with Australian Indigenous voices and creative talent as found through Cleverman. The final episode of season one was aired Thursday, July 7. This particular episode felt like one giant teaser for season two. It left me wanting much more.
We left our anti-hero, Koen, much less “anti” and coming finally into his own, as all sides are baying for war. I agree with AV Club‘s Brandon Nowalk, whose review pointed out the first season was more promise than delivery in terms of story. It was a season of exposition that has left a carefully crafted set of characters ready for the real meat of season two.
But that exposition can be easily forgiven. After all, there would only be a handful of people on this continent with enough knowledge of Aboriginal Law and Dreaming not to require background information. I can only imagine the culture shock and complete lack of context for those watching in the US and, shortly, the UK.
Thankfully, for those interested, there are a few helpful guides that wade into the dystopian near future of Cleverman‘s Sydney. This includes Zebbie Watson’s guide at Inverse, and The Guardian‘s episode by episode recaps. For some extra fun, check out the behind the scenes video with Adam Briggs and, one of my favourite Australian voices, Gurrumul Yunupingu and the inspiration for the Cleverman theme song.