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What’s wrong with Australian films? Has industry failed, or have the funding gate keepers simply failed to recognise the talent sitting literally under their noses, as Rod Bishop* argues in response to our Editorial (20/11/2008) and The Australian’s editorial (14/11/2008).

As you quite rightly point out in your own editorial “Better, Braver Film Ideas Needed” (November 20, 2008), the editorial published in The Australian “A Brilliant Film Industry Goes Bung” (November 14, 2008), takes aim at some surprising targets – including Oyster Farmer and the much acclaimed low budget Beneath Clouds (2002), the first feature film written and directed by Aboriginal film school graduate Ivan Sen.

The Australian states “Adults…shake their heads in despair when their teenagers come home from school bored and frustrated after being force-fed a foul-mouthed, one-dimensional view of our national life. Such flicks as Beneath Clouds, might make teachers feel good, but far from promoting indigenous ‘cultural relationships’, they leave many teenagers cold”.

I know someone who can’t listen to Bob Dylan because his primary school teachers forced him to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” every morning. That’s not Dylan’s fault. I may be completely wrong, but the editorial reads like an anecdote about the writer’s kids coming home from school one day complaining about a boring film they were forced to watch. That’s basis enough to make claims on what’s wrong with our industry?


I am also surprised to read in The Australian editorial that there are other “flicks” like Beneath Clouds. Other films from indigenous filmmakers exploring what it means for teenagers to have one blackfella and one whitefella parent? Films about being caught between Aboriginal and white cultures and separated from family and country? Seems very odd indeed for a film with such content be called a “one-dimensional view of our national life”

But The Australian editorial writer can rest easy. There’s been no further features from Sen during the past six years. The only Aboriginal filmmaker to win the AFI Award for Best Director, his talents have failed to attract the interest of our film funding agencies.

Sen was an acclaimed student at the Australian Film Television and Radio School when I worked there. I asked a former staff member why an indigenous filmmaker with such blindingly obvious talent had not found funding for another feature film:

“Ivan refused to be pigeon-holed into bleeding-heart blackfella films for middle class white people, and the funding agencies didn't want to know him. Nothing against his earlier short films – they’re very good - but Ivan knows they weren’t for his people - they're too poor to go to the cinema - and when they manage to, they want to see the Hollywood blockbusters. The prevailing myth that indigenous filmmakers have a duty to make their stories is just that. Who is it for? Go for it Ivan, I say. Just don't expect to get support from Australian film funding agencies. They can't cope with it.”

"what can the funding agencies cope with?"

So, what can the funding agencies cope with? Certainly not the Victorian College of the Arts graduate Robert Luketic. He left film school to answer the phone as a receptionist at the Australian Film Commission. A couple of years later, in the United States, his first feature film Legally Blond grossed $US141 million.

Or James Wan and Leigh Whannell, students of mine in a film course at RMIT University. What did funding bodies think of their horror film ideas? They went to the United States and their Saw franchise has currently grossed $US619 million.

Ivan Sen, Robert Luketic and Wan and Whannell are only some of the film school graduates and other talented filmmakers who have not been encouraged by the gatekeepers of government film production finance. Is the question really about why the industry has failed, or whether that industry has failed to recognise the talent sitting literally under its nose?

Published November 27, 2008

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* Rod Bishop is a former Director of the Australian Film Television and Radio School

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