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Reflecting Australia through diverse stories

Screen Australia’s Generate Fund is opening up new pathways for emerging screen creators, including writer/director Kauthar Abdulalim.

As all film and television practitioners can attest, getting your foot in the industry door – kismet aside – is the primary challenge for emerging creators. Even then, while a mix of talent, luck and hard work may land you in a writers’ room or on a set, it is diligence, foresight and persistence that will open up creators to greater opportunity.

This has proven true for emerging writer/director Kauthar Abdulalim, for whom progress isn't a breakthrough hinging on luck but consistent effort. A recipient of Screen Australia’s Generate Fund, the 27-year old graduate of both documentary film and Islamic Studies courses is forging a path for herself with her web series Salma and the City.

Previously, getting financial support for an online project as an emerging talent without eligibility credits would not have been possible. But with the Australian industry looking to diversify its story offerings, it’s an opportune time for creators like Abdulalim.

Born in Kenya, and migrating to Australia in 2006, Abdulalim is drawing on her Pakistani heritage in her irreverent tale of a Pakistani Muslim mother finding fresh life in a long-forgotten passion.

“… You could say it's like a Muslim version of Sex in the City, but without the sex,” she says, with a laugh.

Kauthar AbdulalimKauthar Abdulalim (Photo: Nicole Cleary)

The story focuses on a dedicated mother who re-evaluates her life when her son, upon whom she’s doted his entire life, publicly announces his engagement on Instagram before telling her – a grievous insult. With a lackadaisical husband and little else to focus on, Salma returns to a buried passion – tennis.

“It's been a family tradition that's been a passion of her grandmother, who wasn't able to pursue it because she was in Pakistan, and the culture at that time and in that place was very different to here in Australia.”

Abdulalim’s project comes from an underrepresented perspective, with characters speaking in both English and Urdu, as well as Arabic. “The majority of the characters are Muslim, so there's Arabic words like inshallah [‘God willing’] or assalamu alaykum [‘Peace be upon you’].” 

Abdulalim says she was excited to explore the story as a comedy-drama series, despite a continued interest in documentary, which she studied at Open Channel in Melbourne in 2012.

“Documentary was interesting because I felt like it's a good way to get real messages that aren't filtered or … warped out there. [But] I've grown up watching Bollywood movies so I've always kind of had this other side of me that's always drawn to that 'out of the world' kind of a life. And I felt like I could do a really good balance between real life … and fiction; bring both together.”

And fiction, Abdulalim says, has a wider reach.

“It's more accessible … it's more enjoyable to watch … In terms of my future career, that's what I want to pursue.”

MENTORSHIP

But an important aspect of Abdulalim’s progress is the effort she has been making to learn from industry practitioners and gain valuable experience, participating in industry initiatives and working with producers and mentors.

“I think as an emerging writer/director in such a competitive industry, it’s hard to navigate around what opportunities are available out there and there’s always uncertainty about whether you have the right credentials to be eligible for that opportunity or not. However, from my personal experience I feel that I have been blessed having the right people supporting me throughout my journey.”

And the concept for the series itself was born out of a Film Victoria-funded project called Story Lab, Abdulalim explains. An initiative of Cinespace in 2018, Abdulalim was one of 30 writers to participate in a series of workshops. “That's where I had this idea and it was developed with other mentors from the industry.”

Abdulalim emerged from Story Lab with a pitch document, which she took to producer Tony Jackson at Chemical Media, where she had previously undertaken an internship. “I showed them the project and they were happy to come on board with me to produce the series.”

Abdulalim had mentors in writer Saman Shad, who joined the project in the writers’ room, and Mark O’Toole, who has worked with Indigenous writers on ABC’s Black Comedy.

“[O’Toole] mentored me in terms of the comedy side of things, how to bring up the jokes and that kind of thing. So that was fun. And Saman … being from a Pakistani background herself … I was able to talk to her about certain cultural things,” says Abdulalim.

“And also the other thing which is interesting is that not everyone has the same cultural experience even though you're from the same culture. So my experiences could be different to Saman's and that was [good to] talk to each other about.”

FUNDING

While Abdulalim’s aspirations have been percolating for a while, the process to Screen Australia funding was fairly transparent. With two stages of application, Abdulalim and Chemical Media submitted the initial application in October 2018. Within two to three weeks, they received approval to submit materials for stage two, which they provided before Christmas. Approval came through in the New Year.

Now, Abdulalim has her draft scripts – six episodes – which have been submitted to Screen Australia. And while the team waits for feedback, they are speaking with consultant and director of Indian Film Festival of Melbourne Mitu Bhowmick Lange about casting opportunities, including a Bollywood actress in India. They are also seeking early feedback from various platforms, including streaming services.

And Abdulalim is flexible about how Salma ultimately comes to life.

“I want this content to reach as many people as possible … It's about getting the content out there, not really sticking to that specific format.”

The idea was to start small, she says. “And that's what this funding allowed me to do. It allowed me to have access to mentors, because this is my first proper screen project,” says Abdulalim, despite having made a short film. “But there wasn't much dialogue … it was a different film … So I feel a lot more confident now as a screenwriter.”

Abdulalim, who intends to direct the series, says the process left her feeling like a valued and respected member of the film and television industry.

“[And the] funding allowed me to develop a great idea into a tangible product (script) which I was able to develop with my mentors and producers, which will now only open more doors for me going forward. There’s no looking back now.”

Meanwhile, Abdulalim is also working on a longform project while she waits. “I just want to continue making content because I do feel like … it is our time now. [Our stories] are being given platforms and opportunities and I just want to make the most of it.”