By Associate Professor Cathy Henkel and Isabel Turner
Diverse and equitable representation, both on and off screen, is the subject of considerable debate in the screen industry sector. Screen Australia’s Seeing Ourselves report (2016) was a milestone study in representation on screen and prompted the formation of Screen Australia’s Equity and Inclusion Strategy and multiple state and industry initiatives to foster a culture of inclusive story-telling.
In 2020 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reset the bar when it announced new representation and inclusion standards to qualify for eligibility in the Oscar Best Picture category. The new standards will be implemented by 2024 and are intended to be a catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry.
There can be little argument that more equitable representation is needed, in fact long overdue. The drive for more stories told by and about women, people from ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and in the LBGTQI+ community has been broadly welcomed. Even previously dominant straight white male guilds and organisations acknowledge it’s time to hear new voices and be more inclusive.
But what happens when storytellers wish to step outside of their lived experience to tell a story? A contentious proposition arises: do we have the right to tell stories outside of our own community, identity and experience? Complex questions arise about the ownership of stories and who has the right to tell them.
The challenge for educators is how to explore these issues with students in ways that will address the complexities and nuances of the debate, promote critical and logical thinking, address biases and promote open-mindedness.
A group based, learner-orientated strategy such as the debate is an effective method for activating students, giving everyone the opportunity to express their ideas freely and consider the opinions of others with respect. The debate is an argument, a form of dialogue exploring opposing views in order to find answers or solutions. It involves scratching and digging, examining ideas through interaction and justifying opinions. Breakthroughs can occur where students really hear contrasting views to their own and their opinions change. Debates also help the development of language and communication skills and build self-confidence.
The contentious proposition outlined above was the subject of a lively debate recently by Masters’ students at the WA Screen Academy at ECU. The cohort are an even mix of male and female, mid to late 20’s, from diverse cultures across Asia and includes one student with cerebral palsy, and students who identify as indigenous and non-binary. The issues of representation and equity in screen production are raised in multiple settings during the course, including discussion of changes to industry policies and initiatives at both state and federal levels. These discussions are often lively and contentious, with the Anglo, cis-gender, heterosexual male students struggling to understand their place in the debate.
The debate format can vary according to individual needs and preferences, but the stages of preparation are where the major learning occurs. Students are required to consider the proposition, research the issues, evaluate and form a view, create arguments to back that view, present them clearly and cogently in class and engage in follow-up discussion.
In this debate, our students uncovered and raised examples of misrepresentation and appropriation of other peoples’ stories, including examples such as Gone with the Wind (1939) Jedda (1955) North (1994) and The Last Samurai (2003). The cultural damage caused by misrepresentation, appropriation and even absence of certain cultural minorities in film and television was also discussed. They referenced Leni Riefenstahl’s films, (Triumph of the Will), as examples of work that embody underlying assumptions about the superiority of the Aryan race with catastrophic impacts on Jewish people. Other examples included the underlying assumptions in Orientalism, which encapsulates the presumption of Western superiority and the application of cliched modes for perceiving and analysing societies and peoples of the Orient.
They also presented examples of filmmakers who they argued have successfully reached outside their own identity and community to tell authentic and powerful stories. Writer and director Rolf de Heer was one example, where cooperative and productive partnerships have produces authentic Indigenous representation in storytelling. The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006), and Charlie’s Country (2013), were presented as positive examples of ethical cross-cultural storytelling.
When discussing issues that are complex and nuanced, where both conscious and unconscious biases exist, and where social standards and attitudes are changing rapidly, participatory methods of teaching such as the debate can be very useful. Debates require students to think critically and support what they say with substantive and factual information. It also enables them to listen and consider the opinions of fellow students, address their own biases, evaluate the thinking behind their opinions and possibly change their minds about a topic or issue. Isn’t that what we hope for in educational settings, as well as in society at large?
Associate Professor Cathy Henkel is Director of the WA Screen Academy at Edith Cowan University, West Australia’s leading film school and a member of CILECT (International Association of Film Schools). Cathy has worked as a documentary producer/director and writer for over 32 years. Her work has screened across the globe and won multiple awards including two IF Awards, Best Documentary at Tribeca Film Festival, an Emmy nomination and SPA Documentary Producer of the Year. Her latest work, Laura’s Choice (ABC TV) and is currently streaming on iView.
Isabel Turner is a Masters of Screen Studies student at the WA Screen Academy, ECU specialising in directing and sound.