25 years of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department

In BlogX, News by Luke Pearson

Author: Emily Nicol

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EMILY NICOL LIVES IN SYDNEY AND HAS BIRRI GUBBA (NORTH QUEENSLAND) AND MURRAY ISLAND (TORRES STRAIT) HERITAGE. SHE IS CURRENTLY THE PRODUCER/PRESENTER OF MAKING TRACKS ON KOORI RADIO, AND A DIGITAL PRODUCER FOR NITV.

Indigenous screen industry veterans and emerging artists gathered at Carriageworks last week in Redfern to celebrate 25 years of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department.

Credit – Daniel Boud

Reflecting on projects the department has supported, talent that has been nurtured and the future of the industry, attendees included directors Rachel Perkins and Warwick Thornton, director and actor Leah Purcell and audience favourites Elaine Crombie, Aaron Fa’Aoso, Aaron McGrath and Hunter Page-Lochard.

Penny Smallacombe, Head of Indigenous at Screen Australia spoke at the event and remarked on the significance of the milestone, “When Walt Saunders set up the Indigenous Department in 1993, it would have been unthinkable that over 160 First Nations screen stories would end up being made. Twenty five years later, it’s unthinkable to imagine the Australian screen industry without our Indigenous stories and the people who tell them.” She said.

“This anniversary is an incredibly special moment in Australia’s cultural history, and one that Indigenous people can treasure.”

Smallacombe also acknowledged the importance of sovereignty in storytelling. “Today I looked around the room and saw 25 years of progress personified. For instance, Warwick Thornton and Rachel Perkins were part of the very first short film series funded by the Indigenous Department, and a quarter of century later Warwick is a Caméra d’Or-winning director and Rachel just helmed the most successful ABC iview drama in history – Mystery Road. New names such as Dylan River, Aaron McGrath and Tasia Zalar have worked on projects from both Warwick and Rachel, so we’re seeing generational and sustained changed. I cannot tell you how significant that is, knowing that young Indigenous people will grow up seeing themselves on screen.”

It was clear to sense a camaraderie in the room and the sentiment was echoed amongst the talent. Emerging film-maker Dylan River (Nulla Nulla) said, “I feel hugely privileged to be in this room in the presence of all of these people, and at the same time I feel like I’m with family. The Australian film making community is close, but the Indigenous family is very tight knit,  like any family we have quarrels,” He adds with laugh, “But at the end of the day we all support each other,  we are all proud of each other and we are all in this together.”

River, who has not been formally trained in film –making credits Screen Australia supporting him where no-one else would have. “They took a chance on me on a whim and gave me a chance to tell a story and I’ve established my whole career of that first film. (As creatives) we are making the most of opportunities and we are reaching for the stars, but Australia still doesn’t celebrate our First Nations culture the way it could so there is still a lot farther to go as an industry and as a country, I feel the job isn’t done in terms of Indigenous characters  not being stereotyped.” River says.

Director Ivan Sen (Mystery Road, Goldstone), said that his relationship with Screen Australia has also been hugely supportive and that the networks that have arisen from the initiatives of the department have been just as valuable.

“Screen Australia has created a cumulative effect.  We have an Indigenous film network now where writers and directors and actors can easily work together, which we didn’t have before. Without this as the core instigator, there would be a lot less Indigenous product for sure.” Sen said.

Like River, Sen also acknowledges that as far as having control over narratives and characters, the Indigenous screen industry still has much ground to cover. “There’s still a  big void that exists between Indigenous and Non Indigenous Australia. The great thing about film and TV is that it can be a bridge between the two groups and Screen Australia has done a lot to build that bridge, the work is not finished yet,  but there’s definitely been a germination and it’s growing, the future’s looking good.”

Director Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah, Sweet Country)  told IndigenousX that he wouldn’t be in the industry if it wasn’t for the first wave of storytellers that lit up the theatre stages, “Early on I was inspired by the Jack Charles’, Bob Maza’s, Justine Saunders… the most incredibly beautiful artists…who all came from that early Black Theatre and also seeing them on TV in those earlier days, they really empowered me.” Thornton said.

Looking forward Thornton says that the most important thing for the Indigenous screen industry is that the department at Screen Australia still existts, and is given the chance to continue to encourage and nurture the voices that need to be heard. “My relationship with Screen Australia has always been nurturing and incredibly positive, they’ve educated me. However, young blackfellas today are not the young blackfellas of 1990, they have different things to say and it’s important that the Indigenous Department is there to support and nurture them.”

Thornton added, “Today I’m meeting young black people and black voices for the first time, who are all incredible and that’s fantastic cause we aren’t often all in the same room at the same time, so just getting us all together is empowering. They empower me just as I empower them, and I think that’s really cool.”

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