Penny Smallacombe: It’s 2018 and It’s OUR TIME

August 10, 2018
The Head of the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, calls it how she sees it.

“It’s just such a unique point of view. We are an exceptionally old and continuous culture that have been telling stories on this land for over 100 thousand years. That point of view is the beating heart and soul of Australian storytelling.”

Those words are from Penny Smallacombe – who has a background in documentary filmmaking and has been heading up the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia for the past four years – are in reply to our question about why it is that Indigenous feature films fare so well internationally, especially at top-tier film festivals.

Top of mind is Sweet Country, which is arguably the best Australian film made in the past decade, at least.

“I just came off the back of a 3-day intensive workshop that we ran called Short Blacks for our new short film initiative,” Smallacombe continues. “We had George Miller come in and speak to our group of emerging budding writer directors. And even he said it, our stories are just a lot more interesting. Our stories are the Australian cultural identity; that is a point of view and a voice. Anyone can make a thriller, anyone can make horror, but what is authentically Australian storytelling? It’s Indigenous storytelling from our point of view. I do think that when we fund something, it finds an audience overseas. I’m worried that European audiences like our stories more than Australians. But something like Mystery Road did fantastic numbers on the ABC. So, there is an Australian audience. Certainly, I just think that our stories are far more interesting. I’m biased, I’m Indigenous and work in this area, but even George Miller said it.”

The catalyst for the creation of the Indigenous Department didn’t just happen out of progressive thinking, but as all good things, was fought for. “People wanted to have a voice. It was Brian Syron, who had applied to the AFC [Australian Film Commission, which was the organisation that became Screen Australia] several times for feature film development funding and was not successful,” she says of the late creative who went on to make Jindalee Lady in 1992, one of the first feature films by an Indigenous Australian, and one of the first First Nations director of a feature film. “He made a complaint. Agitators like Gary Foley, Brian Syron, Bob Maza, Justine Saunders, Rhoda Roberts, Freda Glynn and all of those early pioneers were the people that put a lot of pressure on the Australian government to begin the Indigenous Department. And it just became another avenue for storytelling and funding for Indigenous people.”

In its 25 years, the Indigenous Department, which runs like a microcosm of Screen Australia, has supported over 160 productions across all mediums. Its current budget is $3.3 million per year, and its remit is to ensure that Indigenous people can tell their own screen stories.

“It is continually frustrating that there are still so many non-Indigenous filmmakers that want to make our stories,” says Smallacombe. “We have had so many years of non-Indigenous people telling stories about us. It is OUR TIME to tell our own stories. We are rebalancing the scales. Our point of view is authentic, it’s therapeutic, it’s what Australians need, it’s what international audiences can celebrate with us.

“In this day and age, with all of the hard work that has been done by the department to help build careers and to facilitate career building, we have Indigenous directors, we have Indigenous writers, we should be telling our stories. And I think in this day and age when non-Indigenous people want to tell our stories without true collaboration, without collaborating with an Indigenous writer or bringing an Indigenous director on board, I personally think that they’re taking our space.

“I don’t want to be the protocol police, that’s not my job. But at the same time, people need to have a think about why they think they have the authority to tell these stories. There needs to be some real thought and a lot of education around that. People who tell stories about other people comes from a sense of privilege.”

That being said, Smallacombe acknowledges that true collaboration can often get the best results.

“David Jowsey’s company Bunya Productions [Sweet Country, Mystery Road] is a fantastic collaboration with non-Indigenous people. Blackfella Films [Redfern Now] is another authentic collaboration. Filmmaking is a huge team sport. But when things come in, and there’s no Indigenous writer, director or producer and the entire film is based around Indigenous characters, you really have to question why.

“To some extent we might be at the detriment of our own success. Films like The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae have commercial success, and of course, people want to cash in. One of my work colleagues just says it perfectly: every time someone wholly non-Indigenous, who is not collaborating with Indigenous people and come in with an Indigenous themed idea, they’re literally taking a job away from an Indigenous person; from the most disadvantaged group in this country. People need to consider that. Authenticity of storytelling, point of view, so many years have been spent of people telling stories about us… It’s 2018, and it is OUR TIME!”

For more information about the Indigenous Department, head here.

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