Viewer Discretion: Film, series explore Maori exorcism and Aboriginal myth


'Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses' (Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Vudu)

It was in New Zealand in 2007 that a woman named Janet Moses died during an exorcism performed on her by her extended family. The exorcism was an act of m kutu, a Maori ritual meant to lift curses. Moses had exhibited signs of severe psychological distress, probably depression, following the death of her grandmother and the ending of a relationship, and her family consulted a Maori elder, although it's unclear whether he directly suggested the ceremony or the family picked up unintended cues.

"Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses" depicts this crime through two methods — interviews with police and prosecutors, and reenactments — and between them try to get at some level of truth about the what motivated the family to take things too far. Though the film risks indicting Maori religious, it manages to avoid this by not questioning the spiritual beliefs directly, but the actions of the people involved and emerges as a jarring depiction of group hysteria. If the interview segments make clear the sequence being reported, the dramatizations bring it all to life and make is less academic.

Group hysteria is a subject well worth examining on a multitude of scales. Some might argue that our country is currently living through its own version. Other times in our past the focus on a singular proposition, tainted with extreme fear, and buoyed by bias confirmation provided by a closed group of people being consulted on the matter, hysteria has gripped us. It's not just the function of religion, though religion can be a major instigator since the supernatural is a prime component, something which by its very definition defies rationality and exists as a defense against the unknown.

Belief does an excellent job of depicting a microcosm of how this dynamic works, and as a bonus does so within the Maori culture, which I confess to not knowing much about. It also speaks to the challenge of rationality and modernity to address the rites of ancient cultures in non-derogatory ways, while still examining what personal dangers can result from their full implementation with too much passion and fear.

'Cleverman' (Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Netflix)

Superheroes are all the rage, but there's nothing else quite like "Cleverman," an import from Australia that not only makes good use of Aboriginal lore as its backdrop, but does the right thing by taking the political issues and history inherent in any examination of the Aboriginal experience in Australia and putting them front and center.

In Aboriginal culture, a clever man is a shaman, and the series takes this concept and puts it at the center of a dystopian scenario where a mysterious humanoid race known as the Hairypeople have revealed themselves to the world. Hairypeople are taken from myths of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, as are other elements of the show. In parallels to the real experience of Aborigines, the Hairypeople are treated as second-class citizens, herded into special zones and forced to give up their own culture and power in order to assimilate. What distinguishes the Hairy People from humans is that their bodies are covered in hair and they possess super strength and ability.

The show follows Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard), an unlikely choice to become the new Cleverman. But as he transforms from a listless, cynical survivor to a protector, he realizes that more than his people need his help — the Hairypeople do as well.

"Cleverman" is a nice mix of superhero action, political conspiracy, science fiction, and social commentary — and it's refreshing to see a TV show that advocates so strongly and creatively for marginalized people.


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