Finding our own voices: Breaking down barriers one film at a time

The diverse cast of the highly successful reboot of TV series Heartbreak High has shown a strong appetite for more diversity on screen.
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A new generation of filmmakers is aiming to bring more diversity to our screens. Carter Morel reports

“If you see your experience reflected on screen it can be really powerful and sometimes healing and validating.”

Young screenwriter Dannika Horvat is part of a new local film community determined to bring more diversity to Australia’s screens – a quality that has historically lacked.

“Being represented in film and TV is really powerful,” she says.

And it’s not just important for the actors. The voices who tell these stories play an important role also, she says.

“The more varied the experience of the people that work across our film industry the better. We do our best when we’re broadly represented. When people from across our community tell stories, the better we are for it.” 

Horvat has been taking part in the first in-person program for the Impact Australia screenwriting program, which had its first run in in this country in 2020.

Finding our own voices: Breaking down barriers one film at a time
Dannika is just one of the eight talented writers accepted into this year’s Impact accelerator program. Picture: Carter Morel.

The program is an offshoot of international entertainment start-up group Impact, which partnered with Melbourne-based production company Gentle Giant Media Group to get it started. Its local learning partner is the University of Melbourne, and is principally financed by Screen Australia and Vic Screen. It ran at the Victorian College of the Arts’ Southbank campus.

The program’s aim is to discover, cultivate, and empower diverse writers from all walks of life. In the words of Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason, the program provides a “unique opportunity for local creatives to develop distinctive, original voices, connect with global decision-makers, and find pathways to showcase them on the world stage.” 

A variety of perspectives

Programs like this are helping young creatives such as Horvat to push Australia’s film and television industry to better reflect reality.

Over the past three decades, the country has slowly become more welcoming of diversity on screen, says senior research fellow in the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Ben Goldsmith. Before that, films and TV shows were quite exclusionary and certain voices and experiences were favoured over others, he says.

UNSW film and media researcher Anne Barnes says it was political changes that helped bring in a new perspective.

Finding our own voices: Breaking down barriers one film at a time

“Changes in state and federal policies governing the freedoms of Indigenous and migrant Australians and the development of new film funding and new training initiatives influenced an entire generation in the late 1980s,” she says in her 2017 paper Mapping the Landscape with Sound: Tracking the Soundscape from Australian Colonial Gothic Literature to Australian Cinema and Australian Transcultural Cinema.

Filmmakers were inspired to “tell Australian stories from a different perspective to the predominately Anglo-Celtic fictions that dominated Australian cinema up to that point”, says Barnes. 

Goldsmith says it blended an inward-looking cinema concerned with our national image with an outward-looking one that borrows from Hollywood.

In taking the next step, agencies such as Impact nurture, rather than swaddle, Australian filmmakers, giving them freedom to produce truly original works. 

The old New Wave – outward-looking cinema

Movies made last century, especially during the popular Australian New Wave of the 1970s and ’80s – when filmmakers focused on outward-looking cinema, often aimed at a US market – were largely “exclusionary” and “xenophobic” says film writer Michael Walsh, in his 2000 article Building a New Wave: Australian Films and The American Market.

Walsh says these films “focused on a particular image” that ignored immigrant and Indigenous stories. Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee – which were part of that New Wave – were wildly successful, and characterised the particular way they represented Australian society, says Walsh.

Finding our own voices: Breaking down barriers one film at a time
Crocodile Dundee aimed to appeal to American notions of Australia.

Crocodile Dundee projected a distinct national image, one that appealed to American conceptions of Australia, says Walsh. The film was a knockout success, amassing $328 million s in revenue from its measly $8 million budget.

At its core, Crocodile Dundee was a commercial film tailor-made for American audiences, says Walsh. The film was heavily stylised, appealing to foreign ideas of Australia.

These New Wave films came to emphasise landscapes and historical subjects, fitting ideas of what Walsh calls “familiar cultural specificity” rather than the reality. Australia was one of the most urbanised countries in the world, but few films of that time captured that.

Indigenous Australians felt the brunt of it. “Indigenous Australians were portrayed for connotations of mysticism, rather than for purposes of social realism,” Walsh says.

Reaching for a more diverse future

Horvat is one of the eight talented writers accepted into this year’s Impact Accelerator program. Though she already has a strong background in film, the award-winning writer saw Impact Australia as an opportunity to strengthen her skills.

“There’s always more to learn no matter how much experience you have,” she said.

Horvat fell in love with filmmaking thanks to her media class in high school, making short films with her friends using only a handheld camera. Horvat aims to capture personal feeling, emotions, and experiences in all she does. Though we are all different, our emotions are universal, she says.

“If you tell stories that are personal then they often have the greatest reach,” she says.

The more personal you write, the more people you speak to. We’re all experiencing the same stuff.

Researching inclusivity and diverse representation on screen, film company Paramount Pictures conducted a global survey in 2021 that questioned 15,000 people from 15 countries.

The survey explored “multiple aspects” of diversity, encompassing ethnicity/race, gender identity, sexuality, disability. Of those surveyed, 78 per cent believe it is important for movies and TV to offer diverse representation of different groups and identities. This view is particularly strong among people with mixed heritage (85 per cent) and those from marginalised ethnic groups (86 per cent). 

Finding our own voices: Breaking down barriers one film at a time
Australia has a diverse and multicultural potation, but that diversity is only slowly coming to our screes. Picture: AMES

Most believe that companies making TV shows and movies should commit to increasing diversity and representation both on-screen (84 per cent) and off (83 per cent), with a further 85 per cent agreeing that how these communities are represented affects acceptance. 

Though it is a country of just over 25 million people, much of Australia’s population is split between diverse communities.

Census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2021 highlights that seven million Australians were born overseas, accounting for just under 30 per cent (29.3 per cent) of the overall population. Almost one quarter – 22.2 per cent – have both or one parent born overseas, and fewer than half – 48.5 per cent – of people born here have both parents born in Australia. 

Despite the progress made in the last 30 years, Horvat says more needs to be done to enrich Australian cinema. She calls for “more funding and more trust put to emerging filmmakers”.

“The more varied, the better our cinematic experience. All the different experiences that make up our country.”