NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Diversity on and off screen in Australian film schools

By Dr Kath Dooley, Associate Professor Marsha Berry, Margaret McHugh, Professor Craig Batty and Professor James Verdon — In recent years, cultural movements such as #metoo and #OscarsSoWhite have drawn attention to low levels of diversity on screen and behind the camera in the global screen industries.

Local and national screen agencies in Australia and abroad have responded with the introduction of initiatives to boost participation by women and minority groups. The question of how gender equality and diversity more broadly – on and off screen – might be fostered is not just pertinent for these industry players, but also for post-secondary educators who seek to emulate industry standards and working conditions in screen production curricula. Unit coordinators and instructors might ask how they can develop more inclusive, ethical and sustainable educational practices in their screen production classrooms. This issue is what a recent Australian Screen Production Education and Research Association (ASPERA) report investigated.

Access to concrete data reporting the levels of diversity embodied within film school productions has been scarce. And so, in 2019, ASPERA commissioned a report into diversity on screen and behind the camera within Australian tertiary screen production curricula, focusing on capstone or culminating screen production units (i.e., major productions). Members of the ASPERA Research Subcommittee designed and conducted a survey that was completed by capstone unit instructors or coordinators at 17 universities and/or TEQSA accredited film schools. This called for the input of quantitative data into the gender identification of students across different production roles on student projects, as well as information about the diversity being reflected within characters portrayed in the work (focused on dimensions of gender, race, language, disability and sexual orientation).

While anecdotal evidence presented at previous ASPERA conferences suggested that production crew roles were gendered, and this is in line with broader screen industry trends, the ASPERA report confirmed this. As an example, the majority of student cinematographers are male. Moreover, the report found that the levels of diversity present within student projects is limited in terms of characters’ cultural background, principal language spoken, disability status, and their sexual orientation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the principal character/subject of an Australian student film is mostly likely to be a white, able-bodied, straight male.

A second phase of the report showcased suggestions from instructors about how increasing levels of diversity on and off screen in student films might best be approached in the curriculum (via specific pedagogies) and through the student production process. Common themes across these responses suggested a need to make students aware of in-built prejudices, the inclusion of more diverse texts (scripts, films, theory books), overt curriculum design (e.g. the inclusion of specific workshops and assessment tasks to address diversity), and direct interventions in class activities (such as instructor selection of projects) to address diversity. These suggestions acknowledge the plurality of viewpoints in contemporary society and accentuate the ethical obligations of instructors to foster diversity in student storytelling. But what would this look like?

Making students aware of in-built prejudices might be achieved through classroom discussion or the use of tests to raise self-awareness. For example, the short Gapminder Test challenges students’ assumptions and erroneous beliefs in regard to global trends.

The inclusion of more diverse texts gives students exposure to a range of cultural experiences, but must also be accompanied by the presence of diverse figures in the classroom, such as guest industry practitioners who can serve as role models for students. Furthermore, one might question the diversity of educators themselves, particularly those designing screen production curriculum. Such an act draws attention to the profile of instructors tasked with the responsibility of developing students’ understandings of multiple knowledge systems.

Overt curriculum design and direct intervention in class activities can shape the way that student production teams are formed and the types of stories that are selected for development. While instructors can act as gatekeepers for the greenlighting of student productions, we acknowledge that student cohorts are fixed once enrolled, and therefore the diversity of teams is harder to negotiate. Current industry practice stresses the importance of authentic storytelling drawn from creators’ own experiences. This raises further questions for educators about how best to foster diverse stories from a cohort with limited diversity in terms of cultural background, language, disability and gender identity.

The data provided in the ASPERA report makes it clear that diversity on and off screen is not just an industry issue, but also a “pre-industry issue” (Keast 2020). The report lays the groundwork for further research and the introduction of applied measures to address diversity in screen production curricula going forward. Continued efforts on these fronts have the power to change future generations of storytellers’ assumptions about identity specifically, and cultural expression more broadly, for the better.

REFERENCES

Dooley, K., McHugh, M. & Berry, M. (2020). Diversity on and off screen in Australian film schools. Australian Screen Production, Education and Research Association. https://www.aspera.org.au/research/research-resources/diversity-on-and-off-screen-in-australian-film-schools/

Gapminder. (2018). Gapminder Test. https://www.gapminder.org/test/

Keast, J. (2020). ‘A pre-industry issue’: New report examines diversity on and off screen at film school. IF Magazine. https://www.if.com.au/a-pre-industry-issue-new-report-examines-diversity-on-and-off-screen-at-film-school/


Dr Kath Dooley is a filmmaker and academic based at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Her work as writer/director has screened at events such the Edinburgh International Film Festival and FIVARS, Toronto. Kath is author of Cinematic Virtual Reality: A Critical Study of 21st Century Approaches and Practices (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) and co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Screen Production (2019). Kath is a member of the Australian Screen Production, Education and Research Association (ASPERA) Executive and Chair of their Research Subcommittee.

Associate Professor Marsha Berry is an artist and ethnographer based in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. She is author of Creating with Smartphones (2017, Palgrave Macmillan) and is co-editor of three volumes on screen media. She has published extensively in international journals such as New Media and Society and New Writing as well as in edited books. Her work has been exhibited Australia and internationally in galleries including the Directors Lounge in Berlin and the Queensland Centre of Photography.

Margaret McHugh is a documentary filmmaker, creative practice researcher and lecturer in Media Arts and Production at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). She comes from an industry background working in film production, and film festival programming and marketing. As a practitioner, Margaret has directed, written and produced over 16 short video works. Her films have screened at more than 50 national and international film festivals including – Sydney Film Festival, Frameline: International LGBTQ Film Festival (San Francisco), imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival (Canada), Adelaide Film Festival, Berlin Independent Film Festiva, Queens World Film Festival (New York), Ethnografilm Festival (Paris), and Arte Internacional De Cine Y Arte – (Buenos Aires). She is a member of the ASPERA Research Sub-committee.

Professor Craig Batty is Dean of Research (Creative) at the University of South Australia. He is the author, co-author and editor of 15 books, including Script Development: Critical Approaches, Creative Practices, International Perspectives (2021), The Doctoral Experience: Student Stories from the Creative Arts and Humanities (2019), Writing for the Screen: Creative and Critical Approaches (2nd ed.) (2019) and Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry (2018).

Professor James Verdon is Chair of the Department of Film and Animation at Swinburne University of Technology and teaches screen production and theory units there. He is also Chair of Swinburne’s NTRO committee and a member of the Research Centre for Transformative Media Technologies. James’ creative practice and research work spans moving image for theatre and museums, broadcast television, and experimental film. His screen work has been exhibited widely including at Leicester Square in London, Goethe-Institut in Berlin, Bangkok International Film Festival, National Gallery of Victoria, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne Museum, Australian Centre for Photography, Centre for Contemporary Photography, and Melbourne Recital Centre.

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