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Authentic Storytelling – Johanna Garvin: when support and opportunity collide

Writer/director Johanna Garvin reflects on the impact of leadership on sets such as Penguin Bloom and her own film Rocky & Me.

Johanna Garvin pictured on set.Johanna Garvin (Photo credit: Jarrod Bryant)

In the Authentic Storytelling series, members of the Australian screen sector share their thoughts on why authenticity is important, challenges they have faced, and how the industry can do better. Subscribe to Screen Australia’s newsletter for additions to the series.

NSW-based filmmaker Johanna Garvin worked alongside director Glendyn Ivin for nearly two weeks on feature Penguin Bloom, produced by Made Up Stories. Johanna, who lives with Cerebral Palsy (CP), made the short film The Milky Pop Kid with Information Cultural Exchange (ICE), and her film Rocky and Me was one of the three successful projects selected for ABC and Screen Australia’s DisRupted initiative.

As a person living with Cerebral Palsy, I have become increasingly aware of the positive impact that authentic stories can have on a person’s sense of self and how it can change misconceptions about people in society.

Growing up I loved watching film and television, especially Elvis Presley films and Bewitched, but I never saw people like me on screen. Now, this is nothing new, but I believe that it has had an influence on me wanting to work in the screen industry and having a desire to challenge stereotypes of what it’s like to live with a disability and help people from other minorities.

I knew that as a person living with a disability it would always be difficult to have a career in the industry but so far, I have met some really remarkable people who have supported me and given me some incredible opportunities. There have also been some pretty ordinary experiences and I have learnt some valuable lessons along the way. Some of the stand outs are: always believe in yourself otherwise no one else will and it is important that you have a supportive group of people around you when you are creating. People who back you and also are not afraid to challenge you on your ideas. Two recent positive experiences in action for me were in 2019.

The first was when my friend Holly Lyons - a very talented screenwriter who I met through the WIFT Mentor Her Program – and I were selected to be part of Screen Australia and ABC Kids’ DisRupted initiative. This gave filmmakers living with disabilities the chance to make a film reflecting on what it’s like to be a young person living with a disability. I wanted to apply for DisRupted because I saw it as an opportunity that would help me develop my confidence and overall skills. But I also wanted to make a film that gave the message that living with a disability was not a tragedy - just another way of being, and that kids with disabilities watching could feel proud and could relate to it.  

I was enormously surprised and excited to learn that we had been selected to be part of DisRupted. Holly and I set about finding a production company to make our film.

We approached production company CJZ and they said yes and were enthusiastic about the idea for the film that we would go onto to call Rocky & Me. CJZ did everything they could to help us make this film come to life. I had decided that I wanted to co-write Rocky & Me with Holly, direct it and produce it alongside Holly and CJZ. CJZ supported me in developing my confidence in having one on one conversations. Conversations about my vision for Rocky & Me. Discussions about how it was important for me to speak up when I felt strongly about something. They also guided Holly and I in creating a great team of people to help us make Rocky & Me - creatives with a depth of experience who I could not only learn from but also have honest conversations and have fun with. This was very important to my creative process.

Still from Rocky & Me: a girl in a wheelchair overlooks a pool.Rocky & Me

I knew that I was taking on a huge responsibility. I had never made a film of this scale. This was daunting, but a challenge I set to prove to myself that I could take on these roles and do them successfully. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone. Holly, Screen Australia, ABC Kids and CJZ took the time to mentor me. They gave me their time, their advice and guidance about the film, connecting me with people in the industry that I could talk to and ask questions of, such as directors. They also gave me valuable feedback throughout the making of Rocky & Me. I wanted to really take ownership of this story so that its authenticity was undeniable. It was an opportunity that could not be squandered. I saw this as a unique situation to shine a light on the lived experience and also to speak to an audience in a formative stage. To embed authenticity into the film I wanted to give other people with disabilities an opportunity to be part of the film. We created opportunities for interns and students from Bus Stop Films to be on set with us while we were making Rocky & Me.

While writing Rocky & Me with Holly I questioned my ability as a writer. That was why it was fantastic to write the script with Holly. She gave me the confidence that I could write effectively and that you will always have moments where you will feel like an imposter but that you need to push through that and put your head down and write. Rocky & Me is based on some of my experiences of growing up with Cerebral Palsy. I loved that while we were writing the script, I was able to have lots of discussions with Holly about living life with a disability. We were both determined to tell an authentic story and through the process I learnt more about how to write a script well and a lot about myself.   

It was important to us that we find an actor who was living with Cerebral Palsy to play our lead character Stella. This actor needed to have a love of swimming and an understanding of what it is like to be a wheelchair user. Luckily ABC kids thought of and introduced us to the incredibly talented actor and advocate Emily Prior who we spoke to and who amazingly loved the sound of Rocky & Me and could relate to Stella. We cast Emily as our Stella and I took great joy in seeing her take pride in turning Stella into a reality. I also had the chance to talk to Emily about her experiences and share my own with her. I am so passionate about authentic casting. When you are telling authentic stories, you can have honest conversations with an actor. They can bring their own experiences and insight to a role which I think is crucial in creating authentic stories.

Another experience that taught me a great deal about the importance of authentic stories that very same year was the opportunity to be offered a Director’s Attachment on the feature film Penguin Bloom. This was an incredibly special experience that taught me not only about filmmaking, but how important leadership is in bringing authentic stories to life. When I first spoke to director Glendyn Ivin and production company Made Up Stories about coming on board as a Director’s Attachment, I was thrilled to hear that they wanted to have the involvement of people living with disabilities in all aspects of making the film. There were people with lived experience of disability employed in the production office. Sam Bloom’s presence and impact pervaded the whole set and also had a wonderfully inclusive effect for me. It was the effect of everyone from the director and all the crew that reinforced dignity and respect at every level of production. I thought this was so exciting. It showed me that leadership is fundamentally important in producing authentic stories. It has a powerful effect on creating meaningful opportunities and getting people to influence culture by demonstrating different ways of being and different ways of responding to this. It prompts audiences to think in different ways. To think about a different inclusive culture, to think about difference in a more positive way. To venture out of the stereotype of disability.

Johanna Garvin with Lucinda Reynolds, Bruna Papandrea and Emma Cooper.Johanna Garvin (front) pictured with Creative Executive Lucinda Reynolds, and Producers Bruna Papandrea and Emma Cooper of Made Up Stories (L-R). Image supplied.

Every day on set I pinched myself thinking I can’t believe I get to do this! I loved having the same call time as all the crew and couldn’t wait to be on set. I loved that this was not only an invaluable learning experience for me, but I could bring my own experiences of living with a disability to set. I was actively encouraged and included to do so. Penguin Bloom is based on the bestselling book of the same name by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive. It tells the story of the Bloom family and how a magpie transformed their lives after a horrific accident on a family holiday. This saw the family’s life changed forever and Sam Bloom having to learn how to live a new life with a disability.  

One of the many things I loved seeing in the making of Penguin Bloom was that Glendyn, the producers and everyone involved in making the film were not afraid to show how difficult it was for Sam to come to terms with her disability. They sensitively portrayed how her acceptance of her new life took time. I found this incredibly refreshing. So often films about the lived experience of disability don’t show the difficult parts of what it's like to have a disability. If it is shown it can be superficial and this was far from a surface treatment. It was brutally honest and raw.

Behind the scenes picture of Johanna on set of Penguin Bloom.Johanna Garvin arrives back onto the set of Penguin Bloom after a hiatus to direct her short film. Image supplied by Made Up Stories.

Watching these kinds of scenes being filmed made me reflect on my own experiences of living with a disability. I was able to discuss these with Glendyn and the producers. These were insightful discussions. Working on Penguin Bloom also helped me to find ways of overcoming the many challenging issues around access on sets. I was given the very valuable advice which was ‘make the set work for you’. Accessible bathrooms are always a tough issue - you can never underestimate the importance of one. Being able to go to the toilet easily is something that able-bodied people take for granted. For someone with access needs it can be a living nightmare. I learnt to always speak up for your access needs in the planning process: not being afraid to have honest conversations about how a set could be made more accessible for you so that you can do your job to the best of your ability and have fun. This experience helped my confidence enormously. I was able to engage daily with Glendyn. All the crew were committed to inclusion. They actively looked for ways to ensure I was an authentic participant. They were all happy to share their knowledge with me. I also tried to observe as much as I could on set. This helped me to feel ready to direct Rocky & Me and has help me think about what I would like to do in the industry in the future.

All the experiences I have had in the industry so far have demonstrated to me how authentic stories have the power to impact on individuals and society at large. They challenge thinking. They create discussion, help people develop their own understanding and give them interesting insights into life experiences other than their own. My hope for the future is when projects are being made, screen creatives who have lived experience of a story will be given leadership opportunities. Only then can real authentic stories be created.