2018 marks 25 years since the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia was established, resulting in some of the nation’s most beloved films, television shows and documentaries.
The key objective of the Department is to support Indigenous perspectives and imaginative, resonant stories authored by Indigenous Australians.
As well as identifying and nurturing talented Indigenous filmmakers who display bold, distinctive and diverse voices, Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department aims to:
- Promote an Indigenous perspective as central to Australian culture, and pivotal to the wider success of the Australian screen industry.
- Foster in Indigenous screen content creators the skills and ability to contribute a distinctive and diverse body of creative work, as well as the ability to work in and contribute to the wider industry.
- Ensure Indigenous works are acknowledged and recognised in both the local and international marketplace.
- Play a leadership role in the development and advocacy of policy relating to Indigenous screen content creators.
HISTORY OF THE DEPARTMENT
To date, the Indigenous Department has provided over $35m in funding for development, production and talent escalation, with over 160 titles receiving production support alone. The model has been so successful it has recently inspired the Canada Media Fund to create their own Indigenous Film Fund.
The ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programme’ (and later called the ‘Indigenous Branch’) was established in 1993, as a result of consultation with the Indigenous community conducted by the Australian Film Commission in the previous year. On 25 June 1993, Walter Saunders was announced as the inaugural Manager of the Department and the watershed From Sand to Celluloid initiative was developed. Ten individual projects were developed through a Visual Storytelling workshop to a stage where the strongest six were selected for production. Six Indigenous writer/directors were funded to make their own short films, including a young Warwick Thornton with Payback, and Richard Frankland with No Way to Forget, which won Best Short Film at the 1996 AFI Awards and was selected for screening in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. The films premiered at the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney in 1996.
The Department secured its own discrete funding budget from 1996/97 on the back of the first successful Indigenous Drama Initiative. From 2001/02 the Department supported both documentary and drama projects and from 2006/07 started making large investments in feature films and later TV Drama series. From humble beginnings, the Department now awards over $3m in funding annually.
Since its creation, a hallmark of the Department has been to put Indigenous people in control of their own stories, and as such Department production funding only goes to titles with both an Indigenous creator, director and writer attached (or lead writer in the case of television). As the careers of Indigenous creatives have grown, it has become common for their talents to be seen in projects funded through different streams within Screen Australia, such Ryan Griffen creating Cleverman, Rachel Perkins directing Bran Nue Dae and Jasper Jones, Wayne Blair directing The Sapphires and Top End Wedding, and Leah Purcell being one of the directors on The Secret Daughter.
Over the years the Department has also been involved in setting industry guidelines for genuine Indigenous consultation and navigating Indigenous protocols and intellectual property rights.
The Indigenous Department has had a dramatic impact on the visibility of Indigenous characters on screen. A 2002 study entitled Broadcast in Colour found that in 1992 there were no Indigenous Australians in sustaining roles on Australian TV, and by 1999 there were two. Screen Australia’s 2016 study Seeing Ourselves revealed a remarkable shift, with 5% of main characters being Indigenous, despite making up 3% of the population.
The 5% figure matched exactly to the proportion of Indigenous actors in the period, suggesting authentic casting of Indigenous actors in Indigenous roles.