‘The Zone’ in the new Australian sci-fi television series Cleverman is a train station. A fragile community of humans—Indigenous, ethnic, migrant, and “subhuman”, i.e. the Hairies—live here. Cleverman’s Hairypeople are an amalgamation of different Australian First Nation groups’ stories; long, thick hair covers their bodies, and they have double the strength and longevity of humans.
In creator Ryan Griffen’s imagined near-future dystopia, The Zone had an earlier life as a place for the disenfranchised and the poor. It became the perfect haven for the Hairies who were not safe from violence in The City; they moved into The Zone and found comfort. This made it easy for the government to detain them, building a surrounding wall, effectively trapping the Hairies and blocking safe travel in and out through use of a heavily guarded checkpoint.
The Zone is all at once an exclusion area, a prison, a refugee camp, a refuge, a camp, and a ghetto. How often these words are used interchangeably in a variety of real contexts – these multi-purposed imagined places are too familiar.
A first example is of Aboriginal stations, reserves and missions. The Aborigines Protection Act (Vic) 1869 established an Aborigines Protection Board in Victoria to dispossess Aboriginal people from their land and allow the governor to order the removal of any child from their family. Other states had their own systems of control: Queensland passed the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (Qld) in 1897, allowing the Chief Protector to remove local Aboriginal people onto and between reserves and hold children in dormitories; Aboriginal stations or ‘managed reserves’ were in force in New South Wales from 1883 onwards through the creation of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board. Aboriginal people were moved by force to and off stations, and all aspects of life were controlled, including rations, housing and education. Many Aboriginal people maintain close connections to these palimpsests.
A second echo comes from the role train stations played last year for those fleeing Syria to Europe. News footage voiced ‘influx’, ‘floods’ of people in these places. These stations held different types of movement. Images showed people bunched, grouped, camped. Cold and hungry, desperate. Individual stories were lost in the description of inconvenience to governments. In Australia, The Zone evokes the ways Nauru and Manus Island are described in different terms for opposing political purposes. Refugee camp, detention centre. How we define those who seek asylum says more about the nation’s identity than it does about those who become subjects in its enforced narrative. Those who are detained, interned or in transit are at the mercy of language created to control those who differ from the ruling class and culture.
Cleverman shows the ease with which minority groups can be demonised and displaced, and attempts to show how people living in these marginalised places strategise for better lives and independence. The series follows the path of Waruu West (played by Rob Collins), an Aboriginal man who grew up in The Zone and now lives in The City. He has become a Government collaborator, and moves both inside and outside. We watch him enter The Zone’s gates, driving past authorities trying to detain a rowdy, older Aboriginal man. “Give ’em hell, Uncle,” Waruu says, from the safe position of his (presumably Government-issued) car. We move inside the station, where camps and makeshift structures show the station repurposed. Wayward teenagers should be at school; Waruu berates them for their lost futures. He talks to the white doctors who need more supplies to service the community.
In a corner poses a sizeable and fierce-looking Hairy, Maliyan, looking like he owns the place. Maliyan is played by rapper Briggs (who also soundtracks Cleverman’s title music, a collaboration with Gurrumul Yurrupingu and Trails). Whereas Waruu’s appearance allows him to be a chameleon when necessary, Maliyan’s physicality means he can’t belong in the outside world. He can’t disguise.
Waruu provides a handy example of a blackfella with a strong, self-created sense of working for his community, vexed by the fact he is an employee of the government. His attitude of ‘making change from the inside’ is clouded by a growing, paternalistic ‘I know best’ egocentrism. He belongs to neither The City nor The Zone.
Maliyan has different ideas of survival. Officiated battles are shown taking place in The Zone. Maliyan stands in the ring facing off two smaller opponents. Waruu referees. He orates as well, telling the crowd these fights are “their way” to settle disputes within the group, they are not fighting each other, these are steps toward a more unified people. They need to “stay united”, stand together. Waruu is listened to by the crowd but Maliyan also spirits their bloodthirst. He doesn’t stop tearing into his overpowered opponent when told. It is clear this will be an ongoing tension, a question of whether fighting or talking is the most effective form of resistance.
Displacing different groups of people and moving them into places—whether taken Aboriginal people to missions, or refugees to detention centres—is an easy way to disrupt unity and fracture communities. Both Waruu and Maliyan are battling against the odds. Past Aboriginal advances have been won by many types of individuals, whether their fight is for citizenship, stolen wages, repatriation or native title. How will Waruu continue to offer hope to The Zone’s disenfranchised?
Train stations are places of both habit and hope. They contain movement, stasis and conjuncture. Rarely are journeys complete here. Their imagined futures, like the one in Cleverman, present a desire for change. Briggs, when interviewed about the show, described his belief in the show’s potential impact on young Aboriginal people; that it will “give them new ideas” and allow them to “put themselves in these sort of roles… as leaders.” In this way, Australian television becomes a Zone – typically a site of exclusion, it is repurposed through Cleverman as a space for greater representation and social change, as the stellar Indigenous cast remodels Australian screen heroes. This is a show rooted in culture, from the Hairies speaking Gumbaynggirr, to the presence of the Cleverman and Namorrodor. Listen closely and you can hear a battle. Listen closely and you can hear an old song performed new.
Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning Mununjali writer with ancestral ties to the Scenic Rim. Her first book Heat and Light (UQP, 2014) won the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and recently the NSW Premiers Literary Award for Indigenous Writing. Comfort Food (UQP, 2016), a collection of poetry, is her latest release.