John Kassab: Looking for a Diverse Cinespace

February 19, 2019
The Australian filmmaker is on a mission for a more realistic depiction of this country’s diversity on our screens.

“I left Australia almost a decade ago because of what I felt at the time was a lack of diversity and opportunity to tell the types of stories I wanted to a broad mainstream audience,” says John Kassab. An award-winning sound designer (short films The Lost Thing and Deeper than Yesterday), he turned to producing in the US with the documentary 12 O’Clock Boys which is currently being adapted into a Hollywood feature film by screenwriter by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), and directed Hannah Gadsby’s web series Renaissance Woman in 2015.

“I saw the United States as an international platform that welcomed more voices into the mainstream,” Kassab continues. “In Australia, the majority of the ‘ethnic oriented’ shows that were doing the rounds at the time led me to the realisation that whilst we may have come some way in accepting one another socially, we have a long way to go before mainstream media will give space to bold and authentic stories about this nation’s racial diversity without exploiting, laughing at or bringing shame to it. Most depictions of ethnicity in the mainstream media focused more on what separates us rather than what unites us. Although there is still a strong thread of this, it is reassuring to see the great work that people like Warwick Thornton, Waleed Aly, Osamah Sami, Ben Law and Que Minh Luu are doing to change this landscape. I have been inspired to join the fight and write.”

As a producer, Kassab read hundreds of scripts but very few resonated, which led to the realisation that he should write them himself. Back in Melbourne, he applied for the Cinespace Screenwriter’s Fellowship.

Can you tell us more about the Cinespace Screenwriter’s Fellowship?
The Cinespace Social Change on Screen Fellowship hosts a series of workshops with leading academics and industry leaders to discuss linkages between screenwriting practice and social cohesion, addressing themes or impact relating to issues such as race and racism, religion, identity, (mis)representation, power, and social cohesiveness, as well as the relationship to mainstream media. I am one of 9 fellows this year that is writing and researching screen narratives that reflect the migrant experience of living in Australia.

The ultimate goal of most people in this fellowship is to see Social Change both on screen, and in the community who watch screens. For too long most ethnic depictions on screen have been through the lens of stereotype, poverty porn or wog-bafooning and thankfully we are now seeing positive changes particularly out of studios like Matchbox Pictures who have taken the bull by the horns. What’s common to all fellows this year is we seek to tell stories which are bold, thoughtful and authentic, and which normalise instead of ‘other’, the diversity that exists in the community around us.

You spent time in the US, can you speak to the way that diversity is/isn’t practiced in the US film industry?
America is an epic melting pot of cultures and voices and has way more of an entrepreneurial spirit, which means private equity investment is far more available to empower every niche imaginable. There are also over 320,000,000 people living there – which is a fair justification of why there is not only more diversity on screen but why there are more screen outlets – and certainly the streaming giants have completely changed the game. Whilst still a minority in the vast ocean of programming in the US, current shows like Master of None, Atlanta, Broad City, Dear White People, Transparent, Black-ish, Fresh off the Boat and Jane the Virgin add to a strong tradition that goes all the way back to the 1980s in America. Whilst all the aforementioned shows are problematic in one way or another, each is uncompromising in its vision to give a voice to real experiences lived by and relevant to ethnic people in America (and around the world). In Australia, we are certainly seeing a shift with a wave of exciting new talent infiltrating the mainstream and I am also very happy to see funding organisations like Film Victoria taking the initiative and requiring its funding applicants to answer to how their shows address diversity in this country whilst lowering their eligibility pre-requisites. This is certainly a step in the right direction, and this should continue to breed shows that seek to normalise and represent diversity, or tackle issues relating to diversity and multiculturalism, more accurately from voices which may have not previously had the chance.

We recently had The Combination Redemption release in cinemas, which represents diversity in Australia. Can you speak to that production in terms of what you are trying to achieve?
I think George Basha is a huge talent and I wish him and his film every success. However, at a glance the trailer looks like a lot of angry dangerous brown people with guns and intolerant white people. This imagery, whilst relevant to some people I’m sure, does not speak to diversity in any way that I can relate. I have been brown and living in Australia for 36 years and the only guns I have ever seen have been strapped to cops and most white people I have come across have been quite lovely. What I am trying to achieve in my writing is to build upon the authentic image of middle-class Australian people of colour – an image that is prevalent throughout the country and yet for some reason, is rarely seen or celebrated on screen. We are highly educated, hold professions, are integrated and integral to mainstream Australian society. We identify as and are grateful to be Australians. We also have one foot firmly planted in the old country’s culture, religion and customs. It is in this friction between the new and old worlds that a lot of quality drama and comedy can explore without guns and aggression.

Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects that are examples of your remit?
For the past year, I have been developing a slate of TV and film projects with my creative partner Khaled Abdulwahab (rapper from the legendary African Australian rap group Diafrix). We were shortlisted for development funding last year by Film Victoria with one of our shows. We are currently applying for development funding for another show through the Stan and Film Victoria development fund and are in the process of developing a highly original reality TV show. Together, Khaled and I are seeking to help shift the cultural landscape of media in this country – not only on screen but behind the camera as well. We seek to create a platform that can usher in more stories and voices that reflect the Australia we know, understand and love, so that audiences around the world may know, understand and love us too.

For more on John Kassab, head to the website.

For more on Cinespace, head to the website.

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