By guest writer Jeaun Lewis
Twitter: @JeaunLewis

When Indigenous Australian star Hunter Page-Lochard started acting professionally he could not understand why he was overlooked, not just for roles, but for auditions.

Then he started asking questions about opportunities for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander performers and skilled operatives in the entertainment industry.

“I would see my acting friends of the same age getting more auditions then me, but the role was my age and gender, so I questioned ‘Why am I not receiving those same auditions?’, he said.

The Cleverman actor soon found his experience mirrored that of many young Indigenous performers in the screen industry, though things are changing for the better, due to new initiatives being led by Screen Australia and their state-based counterparts. In 2016, the state body started the Screen Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy (2016-19), which had a focus on creating sustainable opportunities for young indigenous creatives to enter the screen industry.

This year Screen Queensland announced their intentions to carry this further, with the plans for 2019- 2022 expanding on the work done in the years prior, committing 10% of its funding to create opportunities for funding and supporting filming in the black space with events that allow for collaboration, such as their monthly Black Coffee Mornings.

Screen Australia, through its initiatives, is attempting to make the industry more equitable and create more opportunities for Indigenous creatives. Their 25-year plan features a focus on identifying and nurturing the careers of Indigenous creatives. The plan also looks at ways to introduce Indigenous culture to a wider demographic in an authentic way.

But is there more that can be done to represent all parts of Indigenous culture? How can the authenticity of the stories told be upheld?

According to Screen Australia, as of the 31st of March 2019, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in key roles as directors, producers, cinematographers and writers for documentaries and short films over the past 40 years is more than double the number of Indigenous creatives involved with feature length films and television programs combined. Only 32 features since the 1970’s feature Indigenous creatives in decision making roles, with 22 of those creatives having worked on all 32 features.

The screen industry in Australia has historically been difficult for Indigenous creatives to get involved in, not only in respect to actors, but directors, screenwriters and other behind the scenes roles. Even ten years ago the industry was far different for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creatives, with tiring and extensive applications for grants being the only way for grassroots productions to gain any kind of sufficient funding, with many young creators producing independent, low budget documentaries.

“There was an emphasis on emerging Indigenous filmmakers making documentaries, especially small documentaries” says Perun Bonser, an Indigenous screenwriter and director from Western Australia who was selected to work on the set of Thor Ragnarok. “At the time I guess it was perceived as the type of genre that would be easier to make.”

Vice President of Content relating to Indigenous Stories and Talent at Screen Queensland, Douglas Watkin, echoes this sentiment. Having started as a documentary film maker, he found difficulty securing funding for Indigenous focused projects unless they had wider appeal, but also recognises that this is changing.

“When I wanted to pitch a story with Indigenous content people would say ‘It has got to have universal themes, there is too much culture’” Douglas says. “These days if I want to pitch an Indigenous story, they say ‘there’s no culture in there’. It’s funny how the tables have turned”.

While the industry is seemingly becoming far more open to taking on Indigenous stories and artists, challenges still remain when attempting to authentically explore indigenous experiences and culture.

Aboriginal authenticity

According to Screen Australia’s “Pathways and Protocols”, a guide to working with Indigenous creatives and stories, the most important ways to ensure authenticity is to guarantee that Indigenous cultural and intellectual property remains in the hands of the appropriate communities. The tension between turning a profit and staying authentic can cause conflict.

“Sometimes a non-indigenous production team, film industry or funding body, they don’t come from that [an Indigenous] background and it is hard for them to understand and perceive Aboriginal authenticity.” Bonser says.

Screen Queensland

Indigenous Australian actor Hunter Page-Lochard

Many creatives in the black space believe that this authenticity starts with having more Indigenous voices in the writing room and other key roles, even for films that have no connection to the culture and creating more solid positions for Indigenous people in the industry.

“The more we have them in the room where it all starts the better.” Page-Lochard says. “To write a screenplay or teleplay, you need to know what you are writing and in order to have a stronger sense of colour-blind casting, it needs to come from the writing.”

Screen Australia and their state counterparts have created opportunities in the past for young Indigenous artists and filmmakers to act as attachments on the sets of major Hollywood films such as Thor Ragnarok and Alien Covenant. These attachments ranged from working in set and art design, to shadowing the director and calling for silence on set.

Douglas says that that now that the door is open for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to enter the industry, and that the focus is now on creating stability and sustainable roles for indigenous and Torres Strait Islander performers and filmmakers.

“My plan is to turn these attachments into more credible roles” Douglas says. “You set people up with the correct tools and it is up to them to build their house, which is going to be their own film”.

Artists and industry leaders believe that the future of Indigenous cinema is brighter than it has ever been, and this does follow the upward trend of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and directors being seen in more key roles in screen productions, with the number of Indigenous Australian creatives more than doubling over the last 30 years.

With the growing prevalence of high budget films and television programs focused on showing nuanced, but authentic depictions of Indigenous Australian culture, it also shows a desire for these kinds of stories.

“We are in a time where people want to see culture, whether it’s Indigenous or not. We want authenticity and culture brings the most authentic part of ourselves out into the forefront.” Page-Lochard says. “but this doesn’t mean we can relax now; we still have to keep striving to tell different stories within the same culture to show its range and diversity.”

Black filmmaking must evolve

Many young Indigenous creatives say that experimentation and taking new risks with genre, themes, and narrative is crucial for films in the black community to reach a wider demographic and to evolve, with a focus on not treading on old ground.

“We need to switch the subject matter in order to completely convey our culture and message. For example, we need more genre or romance like films such as Top End Wedding or Sweet Country,” says Page-Lochard.

Bonser agrees, saying that the romanticised idea of the Indigenous experience needs to be supplanted by exploration into the modern experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and that playing with genre is a great way to do that.

“We need to explore other things that are happening in our society in the here and now” Bonser says. “I think there is a conversation that we are afraid to talk about, that we are afraid to explore, and I think the horror genre is a great way of exploring that”.

This idea is supported by Screen Queensland and Screen Australia, with the Screen Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy for the next three years placing importance on finding talent in regional communities and finding new ways to express Indigenous Australian culture and identity.

However, this plan is not without its own risks, with the strategy citing the “Higher costs of working out of remote and regional locations” and the competitive nature of the industry as potential barriers for the strategy.

Douglas is optimistic though, saying that the number of compelling stories and artists in the indigenous film community and the wider Australian screen industry is a goldmine for stories that won’t run out any time soon, with film, television and even web series being an extension of the ways indigenous culture has told stories for 80,000 years.

“Indigenous storytelling is more than just feathers, didgeridoos and goannas running around the landscape” Douglas says. “People are realising that it’s a lot more complex than that. There is a lot of complexity”.