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Australia Celebrates 25 Years of Indigenous Screen Culture

Guests from Canada’s ImagineNATIVE festival and the U.S.’s Sundance Institute were on hand Thursday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department. A ceremony was held in Redfern, a suburb of Sydney that is the setting for “Redfern Now,” one of the program’s most enduring small screen triumphs.

The unit (originally set up at the Australian Film Commission and called  the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programme’) has pioneered the development of talent and content from the country’s native, now minority, people. And it has led the way for similar screen industry empowerment initiatives in other countries.

“This is about indigenous people telling their own stories. Australia is a leader in this,” said Jason Ryle. “We’ve been wanting something like this in Canada for a long time. Finally, it is happening.” That is a reference to the Canada Media Fund, which recently set up its own indigenous fund.

“When Wal 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,” said Penny Smallacombe, head of indigenous at Screen Australia, in a statement.

What has made the Australian model a success is its proactive efforts to develop talent and to get indigenous work on screen. Efforts elsewhere may provide grants or other funding, but typically they are more passive and require talent to take the initiative.

Over 25 years, the Indigenous Department has provided over $26 million (A$35 million) in funding for development, production and talent escalation, with over 160 titles receiving production support alone. Saunders, the department’s first general manager, helped establish the Sand to Celluloid initiative which provided a workshop, and then production support for six projects.

Smallacombe points out that directors Warwick Thornton (“Sweet Country”) and Rachel Perkins (“Bran Nue Dae”) were both part of the initial round of funding recipients. Now both are considered major talents, and the Perkins-directed “Mystery Road” mini-series has been one of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s highest reviewed shows of recent years, which Smallacombe says demonstrates the sustainability of the efforts.

“We set out to spot talent, then get them into professional development, funding 12 months with production companies,” says Smallacombe. Short films have long been a core component. “That’s because many people had already been doing things, often in factual. Short films help move them into drama.” Others came from live theater.

Smallacombe and Ryle both argue that indigenous people telling their own stories, rather than other people, is vitally important. A study last year showed that, while indigenous Australians account for 3.5% of the population, indigenous stories and characters now account for 5% of Australian screen time. “I’d say we are well represented, not over-represented, especially when you consider that we have been so misrepresented for so many years,” says Smallacombe. “Until (25 years ago) the vast majority of Australian films and TV were never written or directed by indigenous people.

“(Around the world) indigenous people have suffered forced assimilation, and the elimination of their culture. Indigenous stories have been told by Hollywood for a long time, but they were not authentic. Now, increasingly, they are being told by indigenous people themselves,” says Ryle.

The slow-burn efforts of Australia’s Indigenous Department and other cultural diversity initiatives may now be being amplified in Hollywood. “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Black Panther” have demonstrated that previously under-represented sectors can be box office gold.

“What we are all waiting for is an indigenous version of Netflix,” says Ryle. “I’d have it as a global platform.”

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