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Podcast – Penny Smallacombe: The power of authentic storytelling

Screen Australia’s Head of Indigenous Penny Smallacombe reflects on a changing industry.

Penny Smallacombe addresses the audience at Screen Australia's celebration of 25 years of Indigenous screen stories

Penny Smallacombe (Photo credit: Daniel Boud)

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

When Penny Smallacombe first started in the role of Head of Indigenous at Screen Australia, her main focus was to create “more”: more producers, directors, writers, opportunities, documentaries, feature films, TV drama.

“I just wanted to do more,” she says on the latest episode of the Screen Australia podcast.

This was in 2014. Fast-forward to now and going into 2021, the Department will have in production: Total Control series 2, Nakkiah Lui’s narrative comedy series Preppers for the ABC, four-part SBS/NITV series Copping it Black, Jub Clerc’s debut feature film Sweet As, the Cook 2020 anthology feature in partnership with NZFC, and documentaries including Incarceration Nation (NITV) and Dark Emu (ABC), among others.

Still Smallacombe wants to see more, because these opportunities and stories will pay dividends in the years to come.

“It takes time. You don’t just have a Warwick Thornton overnight, or a Darren Dale overnight. That’s years of experience and talent,” she says.

Throughout the podcast Smallacombe also reflects on a piece written for the Guardian in June 2020 that was sparked by Black Lives Matter, and expands on her thoughts around consultation, non-Indigenous Australians telling Indigenous stories, and why the screen industry is on the precipice of change.

“I think there’s a lot of goodwill going on, but I also think there’s a very long way to go for non-Indigenous people to have a greater understanding of what their role is within our story world,” Smallacombe says.

She also discusses the importance of inclusion – not just so people can see themselves reflected on screens, but for generations to come as well.

It’s something filmmaker Erica Glynn, her predecessor as Head of Indigenous, said to her when she started at Screen Australia: “She said, ‘always fund excellence and remember always fund content that’s going to have relevance in 50-100 years.’ Because we are creating screen documents of time, of people, of identity, of stories, that people in 50 years’ time will look back on and think ‘wow wasn’t that really interesting the urban Indigenous experience in Redfern in that time, this is what it looked like.’

“And this is why inclusion is so important, because we have underrepresented groups in Australia that have not been afforded or given opportunity to be able to document their lived experience in this country for somebody else to look back on in 50 years to even know they existed here. That’s why having access and finding talent and bringing them into the fold of screen and television filmmaking, that’s why it’s so vitally important.”

For feedback about this episode, please email Podcast.

Further Reading

  • Learn about the history and milestones of the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia here
  • Watch the Celebrating Indigenous Screen Stories reel here
  • Read about 11 Indigenous Australian dramas you can watch right now here
  • Hear from Penny Smallacombe and other Indigenous Australians and people of colour in this piece from the Guardian that's mentioned throughout the podcast here
  • Steven McGregor on documentary Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky here
  • Warwick Thornton on being both director and subject in documentary The Beach here
  • Director Catriona McKenzie's advice piece here
  • Cinematographer Murray Lui details the camera and lens choices on Top End Wedding here
  • Hunter Page-Lochard on moving from acting into directing here
  • Blackfella Films producer Darren Dale on Total Control and stories that resonate here
  • Director Rachel Perkins takes us behind the scenes of Mystery Road season 1 here
  • Top End Wedding director Wayne Blair and co-writer/actor Miranda Tapsell behind the scenes video here
  • Director Darlene Johnson discusses her unlikely path to filmmaking here
  • Aaron Fa'Aoso: footy, producing and Indigenous stories here
  • Mystery Road screenwriter Kodie Bedford on big breaks here
  • Leah Purcell and The Drover's Wife here
  • Writer/actor Nakkiah Lui on finding humour in tragedy with Kiki & Kitty here
  • Taika Waititi on paying it forward in Thor: Ragnarok here

Indigenous screen industry veterans gather for a photo shoot at the celebrations at CarriageworksIndigenous screen industry veterans at Screen Australia's celebration of 25 years of Indigenous sceen stories. Back row, L-R: Ivan Sen, Shari Sebbens, Warwick Thornton, Aaron Fa'aoso. Front row, L-R: Tasia Zalar, Penny Smallacombe, Elaine Crombie, Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Rachel Perkins, Hunter Page-Lochard, Dylan River (Photo credit: Daniel Boud)

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AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast, I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. On this episode of the podcast, we're joined by Screen Australia's Head of Indigenous Penny Smallacombe. Penny joined Screen Australia as the Head of Indigenous in 2014 and is the fifth person to lead the department since its inception in 1993. Penny talks through what she wanted to achieve coming into the role, current major projects and initiatives with the likes of New Zealand Film Commission and streamers such as Netflix, as well as plans for the future. Penny also talks specifically to 2020 and the impact of Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter on the screen sector. On that point, in June 2020, Penny was one of a number of Indigenous people and people of colour from the Australian screen industry to contribute to an article in The Guardian (that we've linked to in the show notes) and expands on some of the points made there: points around authentic storytelling, consultation, questions for non-Indigenous creatives wanting to tell Indigenous stories, and positive examples of early collaboration with projects like Channel Seven's Royal Flying Doctor series RFDS. To get the latest episodes of the Screen Australia podcast, remember, you can subscribe through Spotify and iTunes, where you can leave a rating and review. Any feedback, send to [email protected] and for the latest funding announcements, initiatives and opportunities we have the fortnightly Screen Australia industry eNews. But now here's Screen Australia's Head of Indigenous Penny Smallacombe.

[00:01:47] Caris Bizzaca So first of all, Penny, welcome to the Screen Australia podcast.

[00:01:50] Penny Smallacombe Thank you for having me.

[00:01:52] Caris Bizzaca And as many people know, you are the Head of the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia. But can you tell me a little bit about your background in the industry prior to that?

[00:02:01] Penny Smallacombe Well, I sort of started off in the industry when I was 21 years of age receiving a cadetship with the ABC in their Darwin office, because I'm originally from the Northern Territory. A nd I moved back there and I started off with a producing cadetship. And there wasn't a lot of content being made at the ABC in Darwin except for news and sports. So I spent about a year, you know, doing a lot of journalism work, as well as holding cables at sporting grounds for grumpy old men, DOPs, and eventually my mentor at the time, who is Malarndirri McCarthy, who's now a Labor representative in federal parliament. She knew that there wasn't a whole lot happening at Darwin ABC, sadly enough. So she kind of lobbied the ABC and they sent me to Brisbane. And I worked as a researcher for Australian Story for six months. And then eventually I made my way to Sydney to work for the ABC's Message Stick program, as well as being a kind of a field producer and working in quite a few different areas throughout the ABC. So that was kind of where I began my career in sort of film and television. I left the ABC and decided to apply to AFTRS, the Australian Film Television Radio School. I applied for doco directing. They forced me into doco producing, as it happens. I remember Mitzi Goldman and Pat Fiske said that the skills were transferable, and I'd learn to be a director and a producer at the same time. So I went on that journey at film school and it was fantastic. I really loved it. I mean, you know, doing a masters degree at AFTRS, there were only four of us, all of which are still in the industry. Then I did a crack at freelancing for a couple of years. Was poor as anything, produced a couple of docos. And then, of course, as it happens, you know, freelancing, you just get too poor and you have to come back and be a bureaucrat every now and then. So I ended up working for Australia Council of the Arts and then eventually moved in to work for SBS/NITV. And I was the head of programming at NITV for a couple of years before finding my way here to this job at Screen Australia.

[00:04:18] Caris Bizzaca And so the role at Screen Australia, can you tell me how that came about? And you know, when did you start working here?

[00:04:26] Penny Smallacombe So I was thinking about it the other day, how long have I been at Screen Australia? And I believe I've been here for six years, but I initially started as a development and investment manager and I was brought on for a year to oversee the Songlines on Screen Special Initiative. And then I, of course, I also did some assessing and oversaw some other special initiatives, then ended up with the head of the department job after Erica Glynn moved on and moved back into her freelancing workflow. So, yeah, it's been it's been really good.

[00:04:57] Caris Bizzaca And so a bit about then the Indigenous department. Can you tell me a little bit about the department and some of the projects or people that it's supported over the years?

[00:05:09] Penny Smallacombe Yeah, so the Indigenous department has been up and running for 25 years. It first started at the AFC all those many moons ago. Wal Saunders was the first Indigenous person employed to kick off the Indigenous department. And he started by doing short film special initiatives. Sand to Celluloid was one of the first ones, and that really was pretty much a game changer, I think, in terms of focusing on creating opportunities for new talent with production outcomes. So they weren't just workshops about how to make films, they were workshops, and that was followed up with production funds to actually make short films. And in that very first initiative, Darlene Johnson was a part of it. She's still very much a fantastic film maker in the industry. Warwick Thornton made a short film called Contact. Ivan Sen also made a short film. Richard Frankland made a short film. So there was a cohort of filmmakers that came through that special initiative, and they're still extremely successful in terms of what they do. So sort of going into what we do now, we really sort of keep to that mindset of talent development is a really core focus of what the Indigenous department does. A real focus on writers, directors and producers, of course. So as well as doing talent development workshops and providing pathways in the industry. And along the way, we also, of course, do development funding and production funding. So, you know, it began with talent development and it's now very much moved into, you know, we fund some really big, big blue chip TV dramas like Total Control, like Mystery Road and to award-winning feature films: from before my time was Samson and Delilah, you know, moving right through to Sweet Country. And we've recently funded Jub Clerc, who's going to make her feature directorial debut shooting a film in WA next year called Sweet As. So it's been a long road, but we're at the stage where we're seeing the fruits of our labour. And we're also trying to find the next big talent out there.

[00:07:25] Caris Bizzaca And it's one of those things where, like you just mentioned, blue chip TV and features, but the Indigenous department also found a documentary, online. It's kind of the whole scope of things can be funded through the department.

[00:07:40] Penny Smallacombe Yeah, we're definitely a microcosm of the whole of Screen Australia. We do it all.

[00:07:46] Caris Bizzaca And in terms of looking at that internationally, is what the Indigenous department is in Australia, is that quite unique to Australia or are there versions of something like this that supports First Nation storytellers overseas?

[00:08:01] Penny Smallacombe Yeah, there certainly are versions of this now. I think that the establishment of the Indigenous unit, which, you know, I think it was an Indigenous branch, then unit, now department, was the first of its kind around the world, to be honest. Now in Canada, Jesse Wente runs the Indigenous film office in Canada, and that's really only been established over the last two years, which is fantastic. You've got the Sami Film Institute, which is based in Norway and also provides opportunities for the Indigenous Sami of Finland, Norway, Sweden and even into Russia. They're also focusing on bigger collaborations with the whole of the Arctic Circle. That includes Inuit filmmakers, Indigenous filmmakers from Russia, Greenland. Also New Zealand. The New Zealand Film Commission, I think, has always had an Indigenous investment manager or development manager, but now they do have a unit. I'm sure there's a lot of other examples in places like Latin America as well and South East Asia that I'm not aware of that have a strong Indigenous community and a strong Indigenous screen presence. But yeah, I think it's really fantastic that Indigenous people are taking charge of financing and funding and overseeing editorial for the stories that we tell.

[00:09:26] Caris Bizzaca And on that note, is there any kind of collaboration then internationally? Because I know there was an initiative Cook 2020: Our Right of Reply with New Zealand. Can you talk to that a little bit?

[00:09:40] Penny Smallacombe Yeah, so that was probably our first big kind of official collaboration. Of course, we do unofficial collaborations with our Maori filmmaking families across the ditch. But the kind of big first formal initiative that we put in place was because this year, 2020, was the 250th year anniversary of Cook's first landing. There was going to be a whole measure of celebrations that was going to take place in New Zealand and in Australia to, you know, acknowledge that first landing 250 years ago. And it was quickly noted that we didn't really have a right of reply as First Nations people. I mean, what what is our opinion of Cook's landing? You know, what is our feeling? Because that was, of course, the beginning of colonisation for us. So we decided to collaborate with New Zealand on a callout for filmmakers that wanted to work together to create an anthology feature piece. So we've ended up with a really fantastic cohort. We've had two development workshops, one in Sydney, one in Melbourne, and also one in New Zealand in Aotearoa, which was fantastic. So we're at the stage where we've got I think like a fifth draft script. We have four Aboriginal Australian filmmakers from our side, three Maori filmmakers from their side, plus a Samoan filmmaking team and two Indigenous Australian producers and two Maori producers. So it's a big collaboration in terms of making this piece where we're going to be shooting in both countries. It's a big piece and there are a bunch of shorts. So really, the piece is not even about Captain Cook. You know, I think it's more of a piece around who we are and where we are now as Indigenous people. And look, I think that it's going to be a really interesting piece. Of course, we've had a lot of hold ups from COVID unfortunately. It should have been shot by now, but I hope and I feel like they're going into production in early January, if we can contain the COVID numbers, which I think we will. And you know, the anthology feature is really only one piece of the collaboration. Already, the producers from the Australian side and New Zealand side are working with the various countries in terms of collaborators and bringing writers into other writers rooms and trying to collaborate on bigger TV series stuff. So I think it'll be an ongoing collaboration from that group of filmmakers, and I'm hoping it's the first of many. I'd love to see us do more sort of anthology or series ideas with New Zealand. They're so close to us. We have a lot of differences, but a lot of commonalities as well.

[00:12:27] Caris Bizzaca And something else that I just want to touch on was that there was an announcement recently about the Bunya Talent Hub LA, which is something that I believe is in partnership with Screen Australia and Netflix. And also in 2018, Screen Australia did the Talent USA programme and there was a Indigenous delegation that went overseas for that. Can you talk a little bit to some of these opportunities and the significance of them?

[00:12:56] Penny Smallacombe Yeah, look, I think the world has changed and with the SVODs and the streamers coming into town and starting to really look at working with Australian content makers, I think it's a really exciting time. And so the first delegation that we took across to LA was really to take a group of quite established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander filmmakers to LA. And we had some fantastic sessions and met with executives from HBO, to Netflix to Amazon to Hulu. We met with the talent agencies and the guilds over there. So it was a really interesting experience to take a group of filmmakers over there to start to really pitch their ideas, to start to see whether those ideas are resonating with international commissioners, to find out a lot more about that international commissioning process. And mostly one thing that we kind of all discussed after the trip is it just demystified Hollywood for us. You know, it is a place that you can engage with. There are commissioners there and executive producers looking to work with us. And it's just finding the right stories that will traverse not only Australian audiences, but way into sort of the global audiences. And it speaks to the fact that Indigenous stories and content and people aren't just niche anymore, because when we're looking at global audiences, there are Indigenous populations right around the world. And so, you know, niche isn't a dirty word anymore, which I'm very excited about. We're not sidelined like we used to be. So, you know, I just hopefully think it's a matter of time before we have our big first Indigenous Australian Netflix show or Amazon show. Certainly, there's a lot of things in development and with the partnership that we have with the Bunya Talents and alongside Netflix - unfortunately, because of COVID, we can't go to LA with this delegation, but we're going to do a virtual workshop in February of 2021, which will include the opportunity for mentoring with really, really established story producers, people, writers and directors. And they'll have the opportunity to pitch to the various Netflix executives. So, fingers crossed that something great comes out of it.

[00:15:16] Caris Bizzaca And with the Bunya Talent Hub LA, so is the goal that one of those ideas then Netflix moves forward with?

[00:15:24] Penny Smallacombe Yes. Yes. So Netflix is already, because of our hold ups with COVID, they were, of course, going to fund us to take the delegation across and put together like a week worth of really informative activities. But now, of course, we're doing that all online. But Netflix has since used some of the funds that were going to be used for travel straight into development. So each of the teams have already received development. Some, from both us and Netflix, it's jointly funded. So they've already got some skin in the game in terms of the next stage of development. But yes, it will hopefully be to see if one or two of the projects get picked up for further development, or even if they're good enough to be commissioned.

[00:16:02] Caris Bizzaca And silver lining for the the teams to then get some development going on that as well.

[00:16:08] Penny Smallacombe Yeah. And it's about relationships as well. You know, like the longer I've been here, the more I've come to realise, I mean that's kind of why the film and TV industry feels very exclusive and it feels very elitist at times because a lot of this stuff is about relationships. And, I'm hoping that some of the stories that our very talented screen practitioners have will make it through. But if not, those relationships are going to be withstanding for their next idea and the next the next big project that they want to develop. Of course, we never forget about ABC and SBS and NITV. Our content makers will always want to make stuff for Australians, for our Australian broadcasting partners. You know, we would love to make stuff with the commercial channels if they ever came knocking, you know, surely they will. It's overdue. I welcome them to start thinking about having an Indigenous blue chip TV drama on one of their channels. So I think it's both, our stories, I think they're the most interesting stories the country has to offer, quite frankly, so why shouldn't global audiences have access to them as well.

[00:17:21] Caris Bizzaca And so when you started at Screen Australia, was there anything in particular that you wanted to achieve when you were coming into the role?

[00:17:30] Penny Smallacombe I think when I first started at Screen Australia, I just wanted to create more. I wanted to increase the volume and capacity of what the department was doing. I wanted more of everything. I want more producers. I want more directors. I want more writers. I want more opportunities. I want us to be funding more documentaries per year, more feature films per year, more blue chip TV drama, more narrative comedy. I just wanted to do more because we were at a stage where there was probably maybe one feature film every year or every second year and maybe one blue chip drama every first and every second year. But lots of other things around that short film initiatives, documentaries, all the talent development activities and lots of other content that was being made. You know, like really fantastic factual series as well. Blue Water Empire, which was a three part series, about the life and times of the Torres Strait Islander people. So there was a lot of content. But literally we're at this stage now, it's a really exciting stage - for 2021, we're going to have Total Control series two in production; we're going to have Nakkiah Lui's narrative comedy series Preppers for the ABC also in production; we're going to have a four part, one-hour comedy series for SBS called Copping it Black in production; we're going to feature film called Sweet As in production; and we're going to have the Cook 2020 anthology feature in production and numerous documentaries. You know, Incarceration Nation being one of them, Dark Emu being another really important factual series that'll be filmed next year. So that's the volume that I wanted. And we need more. I mean, we desperately need more writers, we need more directors, we need more opportunities for writers and directors. And we've done a lot of work around producers. But it takes time. You don't just have a Warwick Thornton overnight or a Darren Dale overnight. That's years of experience and talent, you know? So I feel like I might start seeing the fruits of my labour in the next five or six years. And I look forward to sitting back and waiting to see what happens.

[00:19:38] Caris Bizzaca And like you said, Warwick Thornton was on the Sand to Celluloid-.

[00:19:41] Penny Smallacombe 25 years ago.

[00:19:42] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, exactly. And so earlier this year, you were one of the voices in a piece in The Guardian that if anyone listening hasn't read, I would definitely encourage them to go and read it. And you highlighted a few points that I was hoping you could speak to now. So firstly, in the article, you spoke about some of the challenges around your job in terms of consultation and how that increasingly is taking up more and more of your time. Could you elaborate on that a little bit more?

[00:20:12] Penny Smallacombe Yeah. So, look, it's a weird thing, isn't it? So we are at a stage where the filmmakers that we have we're making a lot of content. However, you know, I think that due to the commercial success of feature films like Bran Nue Dae, The Sapphires, I think that the rest of Australia has cottoned on to the commercial viability of Indigenous stories. And I feel like there has been a wave of non-Indigenous people that want to dabble in the Indigenous storytelling world, particularly in the scripted drama space is where we're seeing kind of huge numbers. And it's not to say that didn't happen before, of course. I mean, the vast majority of content that's been made about Indigenous people has not included us, and it's been made by non-Indigenous people. But there has been a wave of, I think, you know, non-Indigenous filmmakers wanting to capitalise on our stories. And it's not to say that can't be done. You know, I'm not the protocol police and I'm not the kind of person that's going to sit here and tell someone, a non-Indigenous person, that they can't make an Indigenous story. But I will always tell them if it's not done properly and if it's not done with real collaboration, then it's not going to be an authentic Indigenous story and it's not going to be something from our point of view. It's going to have a white lens across it. And storytelling is actually in the United Nations declaration for Indigenous people as a human right. And I think that people need to recognise that it is our human right to tell our stories for screen, and we will always tell them in collaboration with non-Indigenous people and with our partners, because screen making and filmmaking is a team sport, you know, it always is, and it's always going to be. And I think that's a great joy. However, the more non-Indigenous people write and direct stories about us, I think it desaturates our voice. And I think it doesn't allow audiences to allow us to shine through. Because of the years worth of content made about us that perpetuated negative stereotypes about us and was not accurate and not seen from our point of view, we're at a stage where we're trying to retell history. We're trying to reinform Australian audiences of actually the core of who we are as Indigenous people, what our place is here, how our culture can be celebrated, and how our culture can be shared in. And for me, when non-Indigenous people continue to want to tell our stories - and that's major themes, major characters, not like not a TV drama that might have one or two Indigenous characters, like that's normal now. We're about inclusion - those characters should be in all shows. But for me, historical stories told by non-Indigenous people does not benefit Indigenous people and it does not benefit audiences and it does not truly reflect our point of view of who we are. And I always, I'm quite sort of upset by that. And something Erica Glynn told me when I first started here in terms of what we select to fund and stuff. And she said, always fund excellence and remember, always fund content that's going to have relevance in 50 to 100 years because we are creating screen documents of time, of people, of identity, of stories that people in 50 years' time will look back on and think, 'wow, wasn't that really interesting, the urban Indigenous experience in Redfern in that time, this is what it looked like'. And this is why inclusion is so important, because we have groups in Australia, underrepresented groups that have not been afforded or given an opportunity to be able to document their lived experience in this country for somebody else to look back on in 50 years to know that they even existed here. So that's why, you know, having access and finding talent and bringing them into the fold of screen and television filmmaking, that's why it's so vitally important to be able to document people's lives in this country for both entertainment and not just the serious stuff as well, but also that's why it's so important to do it properly and authentically and appropriately, because if you misrepresent a cultural group that has never, ever had the opportunity to be on screen, you set back the understanding of Australian audiences, of who these people are, what their everyday lives are like and, you know, what are both the differences and the commonalities that people have in terms of human life and human friendships and just our cultural identity. With regards to the consultation taking place, it is far and wide right now and there are great situations. But I guess the problem with consultation is that what we have is a lot of story rooms taking place where Indigenous people are being asked to engage in them. However, they're not really set up with any kind of cultural safety. And more often than not, some of the Indigenous people going to these story rooms just don't feel like they're being listened to or on the other hand, feel like it's a very token gesture.

[00:25:39] Caris Bizzaca Like the diversity hire.

[00:25:41] Penny Smallacombe Yeah, the diversity high without any real voice. The more experienced writers or story producers already know what they want to do. Or on the other hand, they want everything from that one person in terms of making them try and speak on behalf of all Indigenous people across the whole country, you know, which is also extremely unfair as well, because we are such a diverse group of people within our own communities. So I think we're at the detriment of our own success. It's a cool thing to tell Indigenous stories right now and people are jumping on the bandwagon and some people are jumping on the bandwagon in a very genuine and considered approach. And I think that there's a lot of goodwill going on. But I also think there's a very long way to go for non-Indigenous people to have a greater understanding of what their role is within our story world and that they don't own our stories.

[00:26:36] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, because there was a point that you made in that article where you said that the the popularity of non-Indigenous people telling Indigenous stories is yes, from like a commercial sense because of the success of things of, like you said, The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae, but that there is also an element of non-Indigenous people being very passionate about certain stories, you know, that they read about something and they really want people to know about that story, but perhaps they aren't the right person to be telling it. And I suppose could you talk to that a little bit about maybe some of the questions non-Indigenous people should be asking themselves if they're developing a story that includes Indigenous characters or perspectives and, you know, particularly like if they might be taking an opportunity for someone else to tell that story.

[00:27:24] Penny Smallacombe Yeah, look, I think that, you know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And I do think that people genuinely want to tell great Australian stories and they genuinely want to ensure that audiences get to understand First Nations people and other underrepresented groups because exactly that, they read a book and the very impassioned by that, they felt something they felt a great deal of sympathy or empathy. And they want to share that with the rest of Australians, because let's be honest, this is still very much a very conservative and quite racist country to some degree and people want to break down that wall of racism and they want to create understanding, which is something that I think is fantastic. But there are wrong and right ways of doing that. There can't be 42 stories about the Stolen Generation told in feature films per year. The marketplace just would not support that in terms of international sales agents and local distributors. They would think that there's just a bombardment of that kind of content. It is really difficult to get another feature film up about something once a very similar story has been told, like the year before, or the year before. And if a non-Indigenous person tells that story, then the other Indigenous person that's from that community has had a passion - it might have been a story about their actual great grandfather or the land that they walk on. And then they literally take away that opportunity for that person from that community to tell that story from their point of view. And I think that's what people really need to consider and think about. What are you taking away from us? And there's this really Western construct around time as well. That 'it has to be done now, you know, like this injustice is happening to Indigenous people now'. And it's like, well, actually, the injustice has been happening to us for well over 200 years. The problem with the Western construct of time, of people's passion, of saying 'I read this book about this incident and there was this massacre that happened or there was this, you know, uprising that happened or black deaths in custody is taking place in Australia and we've got to document this now' is not the way that we think as Indigenous people. The story will be told by the right person at the right time when it's supposed to be. And that's a really important bottom line, I think. So there's lots for us to learn and certainly I probably no doubt sound pretty harsh. I'm pretty strong with my views around this kind of stuff. But, you know, that's not to say there isn't collaborations with non-Indigenous people. That's not to say a really experienced non-Indigenous producer might come across a young woman that wants to make a film about something and they have all the resources to be able to support that Indigenous person to tell that story. That's a beautiful collaboration. And those collaborations are happening constantly. So there are many best practise examples out there, but there's also a lot of Indigenous people that they get calls every five minutes of the day from non-Indigenous people that have written a feature film script about main themes, main Indigenous characters. And they're just looking for a tick the box exercise, really. You know, they're just looking for a blackfella to read it, tick it off and say 'there's nothing too bad in it. It seems culturally appropriate'. And the vast majority of Indigenous people I know don't want to do that work anymore. They don't want to work on white people's projects. They want to work on their own projects.

[00:30:58] Caris Bizzaca Be brought in far before it's finished.

[00:31:02] Penny Smallacombe When it's just a kernel of an idea. Before they've set what the thesis of the story is, before they know what the outcome is, before they think they've got the characters in mind. So if you're going to collaborate, it has to be done from before you even put pen to paper. And also, you know, another important thing to remember, when non-Indigenous people are ringing around and they can't find a consultant or they can't find a collaborator, I think that's a message in itself to say that you don't really have connections with the community. You don't really have the network that you need to. And if people are not excited by your concept, then it's probably not one that you should be telling. We want to tell our own stories. We want you to support us telling our own stories, not tell them for us. Ismail Khan used to work here in the department and he said something to me once that made perfect sense that is a major problem with non-Indigenous people telling Indigenous stories. A lot of Indigenous stories come from a place of trauma because of our historical wrongs, not our wrongs, the wrongdoings that have been done to us. And if you can think about it, you know, when a lot of non-Indigenous people look to tell our stories, they usually use the the trauma methodology of storytelling in order to seek sympathy from audiences. But you're, in fact, profiting by making this film from our dispossession and trauma and that is highly problematic. You cannot profit and make a living off telling somebody else's stories of trauma. And I think that's something that really sat with me as well. And that's something that I think a lot of non-Indigenous filmmakers really need to think about.

[00:32:55] Caris Bizzaca And you have mentioned a couple of times about some really positive examples of inclusivity within the Australian screen industry. Are there any ones in particular that you could speak to, whether it's, you know, particular companies or a series that you've seen?

[00:33:12] Penny Smallacombe I think that, you know, like from what the Indigenous department funds, there are some really good practice situations taking place. Copping It Black is a four part, one hour series for SBS, which has had a story producer who's non-Indigenous Michaeley O'Brien. She's fantastic. She was also on the first series of Mystery Road. And there was a point when we were at the last development workshop and Erica Glynn is going to write two episodes, Steven McGregor's writing two episodes, where even Michaeley sort of said and she's been on the journey for a couple of workshops now, but she said, 'look, I don't feel like I could write this'. It's so steeped in culture, in language, in central Australian community life that she wouldn't feel comfortable putting a pen to page, but has really worked very closely with Steven and Erica and Danielle MacLean, also in the writers room and the producers. It's a co-production with CAAMA and Bunya Productions and Warren H. Williams, it's actually his original concept. So, you know, like that's that's best practice. That's kind of supporting Indigenous people to tell our stories from our own perspective. Certainly more collaborative models as well. You know, like Mystery Road, Total Control, 8MMM back when Trisha Morton-Thomas did that. Grace Beside Me, the children's series, a great collaboration between Dena Curtis and Lois Randall, you know, a mixture of people in the writers room. They even brought in Briar Grace-Smith, who's a Maori from New Zealand, because one of the children characters was a Maori, so you know that that's the way it's done properly. There were people that might be doing, I don't know a children's animation or might be doing, you know, like a TV show, like the Royal Flying Doctors, for instance, where there are a couple of Indigenous characters or set in a world where, you know, like Broken Hill and everything has a large Indigenous population. So there's great things taking place. I know that that team went and involved Adrian Wills, you know, who's a fantastic Indigenous writer/director, and he worked in the story room. He wrote a script. He's been and directed a couple of episodes. He's directed a block. So there have been a lot of really good collaborations.

[00:35:34] Caris Bizzaca And on the reverse, you know, having talked about some advice for then non-Indigenous practitioners, do you have advice for Indigenous creatives or people of colour, whether emerging or otherwise?

[00:35:47] Penny Smallacombe So, look, certainly it's hard yards for an emerging practitioner, whether they're First Nations or a person of colour or they come from the LGBTQIA+ plus community or have a disability, a varied ability because it's not an easy industry to access. However, we find a lot of people find openings and ways to get into the industry through consultancy work on non-Indigenous projects. And I think that it's a balance. If you're really green and you don't have runs on the board, you will probably have to work with someone more experienced. You'll probably have to work with them on their show and you'll contribute and you'll work hard and you'll do it well. And if you have the talent, you know, it'll shine. And hopefully you'll get an opportunity to actually not just be brainstorming in a story room, but actually write a script and to actually direct an episode. And those are the conversations I think people need to have very early as well when they brought into that fold. But also, you know, with the limit of expectations as well. If you've never written a one hour piece of television drama, it's probably going to be very hard to just roll in and do one. You have to build craft over a period of time. But the thing that I often say to people when they are working their way through various story rooms, they might start off as a note taker and then kind of move through into brainstorming. And we've had a lot of situations where people have been in a writers' room and they've brainstormed. They weren't brought back to write a script or they weren't really kind of mentored or nurtured throughout the whole experience, to be honest. And then they watched the show. A year later, it pops up and like a character in the show might be named after actually their grandmother that they might have put forward or what have you. And this can be very disheartening for people because a piece of their lived experience is suddenly on screen with something they didn't really have that much to do with. So I always tell people just never to give away your gold: do not give away the storyline or the character that you want to develop when you have more experience down the track into that feature film, that scripted drama, that narrative series or that factual documentary series. I mean, go in and share your knowledge, learn from the group in the room, be hard working, be open, be very clear about the fact that you are there as a creative and you are there is a creative from an underrepresented group, but never give away the big piece that you want to make in the future. Keep that for yourself. Wait until you get more runs on the board. Keep developing yourself, keep expanding your networks and branching out because you may have one or two bad experiences to begin with, with the wrong people, the wrong production companies, the wrong teams. But there are some really great people out there. There are some great story producers, great production companies that actually want to do things properly and with good hope, you will come across them and you know, your experience will get better and better. I was on another panel with the Writers' Guild and I can't remember who said it on the panel, but there was someone else on the panel that said she had gotten further in her career, not from being a consultant on non-Indigenous people's shows, but rather just from writing. She wrote samples. She just practised her writing as best she could so and went in and had some samples of scripts and some short films and all of those kind of things that she was able to go to those teams to prove that she could write, that she had some skills, that she had a really unique voice. And she said the more time spent on that and honing your craft as opposed to trying to get in through being a consultant, it's far more rewarding to try and work on your craft and try and get into rooms in an authentic way.

[00:39:35] Caris Bizzaca And what does it mean when people talk about ownership of stories and why is that significant?

[00:39:44] Penny Smallacombe Look, I think everyone might have their own definition about ownership of stories. When I'm referring to ownership of story, I am referring to the point of view in which it's told. So for me, ownership is around writing and directing. The writer/director for me is so important because it takes away the white lens in which a non-Indigenous white writer would see it through, would write it through. But as mentioned, I feel like we've put a lot of funds and energy into bolstering the producing community. You know, Mitchell Stanley, Dena Curtis, Tanith-Glynn Maloney: we've got some amazing people that are doing some amazing content. We're going to have more and more and more. But I'm hoping in the next five years when we talk about ownership of story, we not only talk about the point of view of ownership of writer and director, but we'll actually own the content at the end. And I think that is so important. And that's the next stage of what we're talking about, is recoupment of stories about our own people.

[00:40:42] Caris Bizzaca So you you've described the industry before as being on the precipice of change. Can you elaborate on that a bit more? What did you mean by the precipice of change?

[00:40:54] Penny Smallacombe Look, I meant the change that is directly coming out of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Indigenous Lives Matter movement. And that movement has sent sort of shockwaves through the world. And I think people for the first time, many for the first time, sat up and listened. And from that, I think a lot of people of colour have found more of a voice because there was a global united front of people of colour saying that we will not be will not be forgotten about, we will not be subjected to racial injustice and we will be afforded the rights that we are due. And with those rights comes inclusion into all areas of storytelling, the arts and a lot of these areas that have been very, very closed off. And so, you know, this movement has created a situation where for the first time in a long time, people of colour, Indigenous people, black people feel like they're in a moment and a moment of fury where they can actually point the finger and say that organisation does not include us, they have never tried to include us. And I think that we're in a really exciting time because we've found a really unified voice around that. And we've also got on the other side people listening and engaging, people thinking about the decisions they make every day. They're looking around and then they're noting their whiteness, they're noting their privilege, and they're noting that things need to be done better. And as I mentioned earlier, film and television is a document in time of a place and a people and a journey. And for far too long, these documents that people will look back on in 50 years have not included so many cultural groups, it's not funny. And people know this is something that they have been discluded from. And audiences are so ready for these unique stories to be seen and heard from for the first time, the second time, the third time from the right point of view. So when I talk about the precipice of change, I feel a really exciting shift that's going on. You know, in the past couple of months, I've received more phone calls, more emails, I've had more conversations with organisations that have never really ever engaged with First Nations people. And now they are they are reaching out and they're wanting to do it properly. They don't want to just virtue signal. They really, really want to do it properly. They want to engage. They want to employ, they want to create culturally safe work environments for the people they want to employ. They want to fund things. I've been asked to be on a few different boards from musical theatre companies to, you know, like all kinds of organisations. And whether some of that might just be a quick like let me just quickly diversify my board, because it does look all white. But the conversations that I've had have felt extremely genuine. And the good ones have started with an apology, straight off the cuff. We as an organisation apologise because we feel like we have never put a stake in the sand and said we want to create change. We want to create opportunities. We want to create diversity of stories. We want to include underrepresented groups. You know, we want to be a part of that process. And we want to listen to people from those underrepresented groups about how to do it properly. You know, we're not going to just slap Band-Aid fixes on things and people, you know, like they're pulling out money for the first time. And I think it's really exciting. I still think there's a very long way to go. And what I hope is that we can harness this energy and that it doesn't lose momentum and that people don't fall back into their really old colonial same-same ways of doing things where you only ever think that 'oh, I'm always looking to hire someone with experience and that means that no one of colour has that kind of experience'. Well create a pathway for people to gain experience and also define experience, because lived experience can be just as valuable as the experience of someone who's got skills in being a development executive. Lived experience can bring a lot to the table as well. So I feel like the more we go on, the more equal weighting of those relationships, the better we're going to be. And I've been really chuffed, you know, like this last NAIDOC Week, you turned on Apple TV, they had curated Indigenous content; Netflix, put out a lot of advertisements about where to find really good Indigenous content; the ABC and SBS always, of course, and NITV traditionally do that, but it's just been on a larger scale than I've ever seen before. And I think it's really exciting. And to those companies that haven't changed, I think that if they don't shift and turn, they're going to quickly become irrelevant. And it's just not good commerce at the end of the day as well. And that's the other thing that people don't really see, not only the significance and importance of diversifying your workforce and the stories that you tell and the audiences that they're told to. But it makes financial sense as well to represent people from underrepresented groups because these underrepresented groups are growing populations in this country.

[00:46:28] Caris Bizzaca And they want that content.

[00:46:28] Penny Smallacombe And they want that content. And they should be able to see themselves represented in a theatre play at Sydney Theatre Company or at the State Theatre of opening night of Sydney Film Festival. The world has changed. And if you want to engage those new audiences, you have to build it in order for them to come. You have to build it authentically. And it can't just be on screen representation. It has to be back of house. It has to be the writers. It has to be the crew. It has to be the the executives making the decisions, the funders, the board members. You know, it all has to be inclusive. So I feel like a lot of the conversations I'm having on a daily basis are leading us towards a place where it's going to become the norm.

[00:47:14] Caris Bizzaca And you mentioned the next five years and there is a next 25 years document that the Indigenous department has put together. Can you tell me about that document? What it entails?

[00:47:26] Penny Smallacombe Yeah, look, we did the the 25 years of the Indigenous department as it being such an important anniversary year of a lot of hard work. And I think a lot of people deserve to be kind of patted on the back and congratulated for that work and for that success over the years and while also putting on this fantastic tribute, we also brought in a lot of filmmakers, Indigenous filmmakers from around the country and actors to get some feedback on our programming and to get some feedback on the initiatives, to get some feedback on, how we delve up our bit of the funding pie. So the strategy came out of two big consultation meetings that we did with filmmakers from around the country. That really helped us really hone in what we've already been doing. So we'd already been doing short film initiatives. We'd already been looking at producers. We'd already been looking at ways to create more opportunity for Indigenous writers. But the piece of work that we did kind of sets it out in a really clear strategy of what we need to continue to do if we're going to continue to build volume, which is, you know, something that I'm pretty passionate about. I guess the only fallback that I think that is hard to do because we've only got a small amount of money and a small team here in the Indigenous department with two development investment managers and a department coordinator is that we probably haven't had an opportunity to focus on the technical roles, which is something that I think needs some looking into as well. You know, where are our next First Nations DOPs, where our next First Nations art department, all of those other areas. So if anyone listens to this and they've got pathways and plans of how we can create more crew opportunities and even just find and let people know that this could be a career for people. don't I think people realise that there are careers in the film industry that aren't writing, directing and producing. So I think that that's a part of the strategy that I think is lacking. But for the most part, everyone that we consulted with said that they received their first and most important and sometimes second and third opportunity through the Indigenous department, through a special initiative: a targeted initiative that really fostered and nurtured and worked on either writing, directing or producing, so that's something that will always continue to do. A big part of the strategy that would be nice to sort of kick off next year and, you know, I think for the department to keep doing over the years is we have always focused on what we are doing with the Indigenous department. And there are state agencies that are doing amazing work - Screen Queensland, Screenwest, South Australian Film Corp all have dedicated Indigenous employees that are development investment managers and/or executives. They have strategies that they've consulted widely on within their state. So I'm really proud of the work that they're doing. So I guess, moving forward, something that the strategy really wants to look at is a better creation of a national framework for development of pathways and opportunities. So we just don't focus on the work that the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia is doing, but ways that we can kind of crossfertilise and work with the state agencies and all the many other players that are working in the area as well. You know, like with production companies, with broadcasters, you know, the ABC and NITV and SBS do some great work in terms of their employment of First Nations people in all different areas. There's a whole network and that's certainly something that I think needs more work to make sure that we are leveraging each other's networks, that we're leveraging each other's funding and also our knowledge base. You know, because the states are on the ground. They hopefully, the goal is that they spot the talent, give them their first run on the board, and then they sort of come to us when they've got a little bit of experience, when they start to play with a little bit more funding for bigger projects over time. So, it's it's still a big piece of work, the strategy, there's a lot of things to tick off. COVID has made things a lot more difficult than we intended. But there's a good plan of attack there, I think.

[00:51:50] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today, Penny. Really appreciate your time.

[00:51:55] Penny Smallacombe No worries.

[00:51:58] Caris Bizzaca That was Penny Smallacombe, the Head of Indigenous at Screen Australia, and thanks again to her for joining us on the podcast. Remember to get all the latest podcasts as well as articles, videos, opportunities and more. You can subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter. Thanks for listening.