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ABC's Cleverman returns with high hopes

Arts & Culture

The international success of ABC’s sci-fi show Cleverman, returning this week for a second series, demonstrates how indigenous stories can have universal reach.

The first season of Cleverman was met with generally strong reviews and great enthusiasm from commentators excited by its unique blend of politically-charged superhero/sci-fi genre with stories from Aboriginal dreaming and mythology.

The series is set in a dystopian near-future in which a fictional race of Hairy People (which are exactly what they sound like — people covered with hair, with added superhuman strength) are persecuted by a right-wing government. At the same time, an ordinary young indigenous man, Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard), finds himself thrust into the role of “Cleverman”, a superheroic Aboriginal figure.

Despite a great deal of media interest, the first season attracted a relatively small Australian audience over the course of its six episodes, starting with 452,000 for its premiere and dropping as low as 217,000 for its fifth episode.

But one of the show’s producers, Rosemary Blight, who was also behind the hit film The Sapphires, says that result doesn’t tell the full story.

“I think everyone who is making television these days — other than big events on Australian television — most of us are looking at two nights, seven nights, and 30 nights in catch-up and streaming services,” Blight said.

“By that way of measuring audiences, the first season was very successful.”

Cleverman has now reached far beyond Australia — it was co-commissioned by Sundance TV in the US, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) last year, airs on BBC 3 in the UK, and has been sold to networks in countries including Canada, South Africa, Germany and New Zealand.

“My experience with indigenous storytellers is that their television and movies can have that universal reach,” Blight says.

That reach is particularly impressive considering the subject of Cleverman is so specifically Australian, but Blight says audiences in different areas around the world have taken something very different from the show.

“When we were in Germany, in the Berlinale with season one, it was all about the refugees, and they couldn’t understand how we understood what was going on there.

“There’s nowhere in the world where you’re not dealing with issues of how to deal with the other in society; so many places are dealing with colonisation and the first people of lands.”

Hunter Page-Lochard, Cleverman’s 23-year-old star, hopes the forthcoming second season will see more local viewers jump on board.

“It’s a little disappointing for me that Cleverman resonates with more international fans compared to Australia,” he says.

“I don’t know why that is, to be quite honest, and I try not to get too political with things. But I think the international audience is so used to things like this — it’s used to your Doctor Whos and every crazy sci-fi show made in America.

“They’re used to being hit in the face with a social or political issue disguised as a sci-fi story.”

Now we’re being represented in a way where it’s 80 per cent indigenous cast — we are most of the people seen on screen, we’re kicking ass

And it’s Cleverman‘s entirely original combination of contemporary politics, genre and 60,000 years of indigenous storytelling that’s earned it significant attention.

In the first season, Koen became the “Cleverman”, whose superhero powers are drawn from different parts of dreaming stories. Koen’s journey continues in the second season as he starts to come to terms with the responsibility of those powers.

“By the time we hit the halfway point of the season, we’re finding out what the Cleverman’s powers actually are and what they’re meant to be used for,” Page-Lochard says. “And that’s embedded so much in Aboriginal culture. It’s something that a lot of people fluent with Aboriginal culture will understand.”

It also means that the action has stepped up significantly, and Page-Lochard says he’s relished the opportunity to work in fight scenes and with special effects. It’s pretty rare that indigenous actors get to work in these kinds of sequences, and one of the small ways in which Cleverman is breaking ground for indigenous artists.

“Within the Aboriginal community there are feelings that are rejoiceful and that are very proud because the show is representation full stop,” Page-Lochard says.

“We’ve all had a struggle to be represented the right way in the film industry and the television industry. Now we’re being represented in a way where it’s 80 per cent indigenous cast — we are most of the people seen on screen, we’re kicking ass.

“We’re holding our own as well as showing a bit of knowledge and teaching along the way.”

Page-Lochard and Blight both say the series has evolved significantly into its second season.

Long-standing indigenous arts leaders Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell return to directing duties, and award-winning actor and playwright Jada Alberts has joined the writers’ room. Jacob Nash, the indigenous designer who created the Hairy People design for the first season, has stepped up into the primary production design role. Otherwise, the core team is the same.

“When you have the privilege of going into a second season you have the opportunity to look back at what worked really well and what could be refined and made better,” Blight says.

“I think we put a lot of work into that, and I believe our storytelling is more sophisticated and more compelling, and our world is more sophisticated and clearer.”

Cleverman season two premieres this Thursday, June 29, at 9.30pm on ABC.

 This article was first published on The Daily Review.

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