Try­ing to ad­dress a his­tor­i­cal im­bal­ance, or a form of cul­tural Stal­in­ism? Ei­ther way, film agen­cies’ lat­est agenda is di­vid­ing the in­dus­try, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

If you come in for … fund­ing with a project with an all-male team, you will strug­gle to con­vince us why that is ap­pro­pri­ate in 2017. Screen Aus­tralia chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Fiona Cameron Screen NSW … will not sponsor, sup­port or par­tic­i­pate in any ini­tia­tive, event, con­fer­ence, mar­ket or fes­ti­val which in­clude all-male pan­els. Me­dia state­ment by film fund­ing body Screen NSW

Film pro­ducer Sue Mil­liken sus­pects her lat­est project, Ladies in Black, a bigscreen adap­ta­tion of the Madeleine St John novel The Women in Black, has ben­e­fited from the widely pub­li­cised drive to give women work­ing in film and tele­vi­sion a bet­ter deal.

With typ­i­cal can­dour, Mil­liken jokes: “Bruce (Beres­ford, the di­rec­tor) and I are very ex­pe­ri­enced at be­ing re­jected by gov­ern­ment agen­cies for this project.”

The long-time col­lab­o­ra­tors started adapt­ing and seek­ing back­ers for Ladies in Black, a 1950s tale of cos­mopoli­tanism, cock­tail frocks and in­cip­i­ent fem­i­nism, al­most 20 years ago. Beres­ford, Mil­liken and their co-pro­ducer, Al­lanah Zit­ser­man, fi­nally se­cured Screen Aus­tralia fund­ing for their film, set in an up-mar­ket depart­ment store and fea­tur­ing a fe­male-dom­i­nated cast, this year.

Mil­liken says gov­ern­ment-funded screen agen­cies’ pre­sent push to­wards gen­der eq­uity “didn’t do us any harm. We’ve got a male di­rec­tor and for­tu­nately they didn’t hold that against us.” That re­mark may seem jar­ring, given how Beres­ford’s screen cred­its in­clude the Academy Award-nom­i­nated Breaker Mo­rant and Driv­ing Miss Daisy, which took out the 1989 Os­car for best film. Clearly, though, Mil­liken is re­fer­ring to the new, harder line ap­proach to gen­der equal­ity re­cently adopted by pow­er­ful fund­ing bod­ies Screen Aus­tralia and Screen NSW.

Un­der the new ap­proach — re­flected in the con­tentious state­ments above — Screen Aus­tralia and Screen NSW have re­cently stepped up their 18-month-old cam­paigns to achieve gen­der par­ity in the film and tele­vi­sion projects they fund. How­ever, some of their mea­sures and state­ments — such as dis­cour­ag­ing male teams from ap­ply­ing for film fund­ing, in­tro­duc­ing de facto gen­der quo­tas and boy­cotting events fea­tur­ing all-male pan­els — are sharply di­vid­ing the in­dus­try.

Some of the agen­cies’ re­cent state­ments and abrupt pol­icy changes are be­ing de­scribed as “un­fair”, “sep­a­ratist”, “overly pre­scrip­tive”, “oner­ous” and even a form “cul­tural Stal­in­ism” by prom­i­nent pro­duc­ers, com­men­ta­tors and screen pro­fes­sion­als, in­clud­ing women. More­over, a gulf has opened up be­tween dif­fer­ent screen agen­cies, with in­flu­en­tial screen fun­der Film Vic­to­ria telling Re­view en­force­able gen­der tar­gets or quo­tas are “un­wise” and po­ten­tially “dan­ger­ous”.

Screen Aus­tralia is the na­tion’s big­gest screen agency and, in a con­tentious but lit­tleno­ticed move, it re­cently changed its as­sess­ment cri­te­ria for all fund­ing guide­lines. It is now scru­ti­n­is­ing the gen­der and eth­nic­ity of ev­ery cre­ative team (pro­ducer, di­rec­tor, writer, pro­tag­o­nist) that ap­plies for film, tele­vi­sion or doc­u­men­tary sub­si­dies.

In a March state­ment the agency’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Fiona Cameron, said the new cri­te­ria “changed the way we now run our de­ci­sion meet­ings. Our staff are look­ing at ev­ery sin­gle cre­ative at­tached to an ap­pli­ca­tion, and the team makeup is overtly part of the fund­ing de­ci­sion … Where two ap­pli­ca­tions are com­pa­ra­ble … if one cre­ative team is demon­stra­bly more in­clu­sive, we will fund that project.” In other words, when two film, TV or doc­u­men­tary projects are judged to be of equal merit but one fea­tures more women or non-whites in key on-screen or off-screen roles, the lat­ter project will get the grant.

The same re­port in­cluded the state­ment by Cameron warn­ing all-male fea­ture film teams would “strug­gle” to se­cure fund­ing from the na­tion’s peak screen agency, whose 2016-17 fund­ing to­tals $91.6 mil­lion.

Mean­while, late last year Screen NSW (over­seen by state arts body Cre­ate NSW) in­tro­duced an un­com­pro­mis­ing new rule, stat­ing: “All TV drama se­ries must now in­clude fe­male key cre­atives on their team in or­der to re­ceive devel­op­ment or pro­duc­tion fi­nance.” This sounds like a quota sys­tem — hire women or say good­bye to vi­tal fund­ing. But Cre­ate NSW chief ex­ec­u­tive Michael Brealey in­sists Screen NSW’s re­quire­ments are “as­pi­ra­tional rather than in­struc­tive” and a demon­stra­tion of “NSW’s lead­er­ship in this area”. The state film agency also has made clear it will boy­cott any con­fer­ence or fes­ti­val that fea­tures all-male pan­els.

Screen Aus­tralia and Screen NSW are both con­tribut­ing to Ladies in Black. Even so, the straight-talk­ing Mil­liken says, “It would be wrong for them to dis­crim­i­nate against a film project be­cause there weren’t women in the cre­ative roles. It’s hard enough (to get a film made)

Di­rec­tor Bruce Beres­ford and pro­ducer Sue Mil­liken

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