For as long as I can remember, I have loved film and television. As a kid who couldn’t read or write properly, it was my way to access new stories and new worlds. Screens can take you out of reality, and they’ve always drawn me in.
I still remember where I was the first time I saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV. I was just your ordinary kid avoiding his homework, watching afternoon cartoons before Monkey Magic started – but this day was different. The usual programming was replaced by the Ninja Turtles. A new journey began.
Leap forward 15 years, and I was still reenacting those scenes from the Ninja Turtles – but this time with my three-year-old son, Koen. Just like any loving parent, I shared my love of superheroes with my son (and sometimes even forced the point); thankfully, he fully embraced it. We would read comics – I’d act out the characters’ voices – and we’d watch Batman, Ben 10 and the Turtles regularly. That was our time to bond.
The genesis of Cleverman came five years ago on one of those afternoons, playing dress-ups with my son. We were playing Ninja Turtles, and in that moment I suddenly wished we had something cultural – something Aboriginal – that he could cling to with as much excitement as he did with this.
My son’s mother and I are both light-skinned Aboriginal people who strongly embrace our Aboriginality. Why does the colour of our skin matter to this story? Because growing up, I constantly had to fight for my Aboriginality. I was presented with casual racism on a regular basis. I remember being handed a plastic cup while everyone was given glasses, in the home of someone I thought was my friend. Later that night, I walked out of that house as the other kids spouted hate of “petrol-sniffing” Aboriginal people.
Whenever I would tell people that I was Aboriginal, they questioned it immediately: “What percentage are you?” or, “Yeah, but you’re one of the good ones”. Others would flat out deny my claim of my heritage until they saw my father, and then those questions were laid to rest. But for my son, he won’t get that opportunity; people will look at me, and still ask him the same questions.
I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that he could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism.
Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.
Thanks to the growing Australian film and television industry, and the rise of Aboriginal storytelling within it, we are now in a position to step up to the global stage and show what the oldest culture in the world has to offer. This is so close to my heart. On Cleverman, we worked hard to get Aboriginal people in as many roles as possible, and this shines very brightly on screen. Showing the world all these stories in a modern format is one of the greatest gifts Cleverman has to offer.
But blending 60,000 years of culture with the superhero world on a modern platform was not easy.
Aboriginal protocols are complex to navigate, and informed much of our process. We could sit in the writers’ room and come up with something amazing that hit all the genre beats to make a great hour of television, but if it crossed the line of what we can say and do around Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal stories, then we had to revise our thinking. These are protocols put in place by Aboriginal elders who passed the stories over to me for the show. They put their trust in me and the team, and that was one of the biggest breakthroughs that enabled us to go ahead with the series. The elders were trying to achieve something very special that would help to keep our culture growing.
One of the stories we were given permission to use comes from outside Katherine in the middle of the Northern Territory – so it was a four-hour plane ride and four-hour drive for me, before I sat in the river for another four hours, discussing the story with an elder. These were, for me, the strongest and most spiritual moments of the Cleverman journey. I sat in the river where the songline travelled for that specific story; it was an absolute privilege to be there and to be given the permission to bring that story to the screen.
It blows me away every time I think of how far this story has come. The passion of comic books blended together with 60,000 years of culture and history makes this something special – and when my son is old enough to watch and understand these stories, I hope it empowers him too. That’s why the hero in Cleverman has my son’s name, Koen.
Cleverman premieres in the US on Sundance TV on 1 June at 10pm and in Australia on the ABC on 2 June at 9.30pm; it will be broadcast on BBC Three later this year.
Article originally published on The Guardian.
Ryan Griffen is the series creator of Cleverman.