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Authentic Storytelling – Martine Delaney: walking the talk

As an ageing emerging creative, and trans advocate, screen storytelling without throwing away your advocacy hat provides some challenges.

Martine Delany headshotMartine Delaney

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.

Martine Delaney's recent decades involved life as a national LGBTIQ+ advocate, stand-up comic, being briefly dead, a ghost tour guide, book in a Human Library and Federal election candidate. A few years back, frustrated by a lack of employers wanting an outspoken transgender employee, Martine tried writing a feature film. Somehow, this led to her inclusion in Screen Australia’s inaugural Develop the Developers initiative and work with Hobart’s Roar Film on a range of projects. Her current slate includes a recently locked-off documentary with Roar, drama series in development (Hoodlum), comedy series (Beyond) - proof of concept now in post-production - and two optioned features. Last year, Martine wrote for Season 2 of the ABC/Hulu-commissioned – Emmy-winning - kid’s drama from Epic Films and Julie Kalceff, First Day. She’s currently co-writing a feature film with playwright and filmmaker, Alex Lykos, and a proof of concept for her children’s drama/fantasy series, If Wishes were Horses, screened in early December – as part of the 2021 Diversity Showcase.

My arrival in this industry was, largely, an accidental thing. On social media, a friend issued a scriptwriting challenge, at a time when – after nearly two decades of LGBTIQA+ advocacy and lobbying – I was quite poor and wondering about my survival in retirement. Additionally, nobody seemed keen to hire an outspoken trans advocate. I’d not a clue about screenwriting and knew virtually nothing of the industry.

Now, I’ve still no real understanding of how it happened but, barely five years later, here I am – an ageing emerging creative, with my first real credits arriving in my 65th year. I’m collaborating with some very clever people and have some exciting projects in development, a couple with internationally established production companies. I’m enjoying myself, even if I’ve no idea!

With little history in this industry, and a list of credits I can count on a couple of fingers, I’m also a little surprised to be at my keyboard, writing a piece for a series on authentic storytelling. All of this is further complicated by who, and what, I am and the time I’m living in.

Rightly or wrongly, we are all defined – to some extent – by how others perceive us. For me, as a long-time trans advocate, this invariably leads to assumptions when I tell people I’m now developing and writing screen stories for a living. The expectation is that I must be writing about my trans experience. Because, like it or not, my transness is the thing people always focus on. I must be writing about my trans experience because the unspoken belief is I couldn’t possibly write on other things.

I am so many things, besides being trans. I decided, early in my accidental career change, not to write of things transgender – to prove my worth, as a creator, without confining myself to a box others had built for me. But nothing’s quite so simple.

To date, my adult life’s largely been about advocacy and working for societal change. And I live at a time when trans people are the political footballs of Western conservative politics, when trans and gender-diverse Australians find themselves the subject of relentless attacks from conservative media and politicians, and their assorted allies. For me, this raises the question of whether I’ve the right to avoid the issues, when I’ve the privilege, a platform and the opportunity to do otherwise? When there’s a serious need to counter the very real harm being done to vulnerable people?

It's not like I don’t have other stories I can tell. I was gifted – afflicted, maybe – with a mind incapable of ignoring the absurd possibilities in the most mundane of circumstances. I’ve a surfeit of material, more than enough to keep my head spinning half the night, every night!

I understand my stories need to entertain if they’re to ever reach a screen or hold an audience. No doubt because of my background, I don’t see value in simply doing this. I also want them to possibly raise issues for the viewer, to question their assumptions about the tales’ characters and worlds. Not every viewer, nor on every issue, but – always – that the potential exists for my stories to cause discomfort, some disquiet, a desire to learn more through their unfolding.

For these stories to plant seeds, for change, in those who watch them.

Then, is it acceptable to step out of the frame, after creating a story? If I’m serious about “Nothing about us, without us”, can it just be about creating stories of trans and/or gender-diverse characters and, maybe, pushing for authentic casting? What of the many others, behind the lens, whose experiences also go to the shaping of a story? An example, to clarify…

A couple of years ago, I did some consultancy and writing work on a feature film, its protagonist a young trans man. During the shoot, the very thoughtful DoP, Kent, told me he’d spent much time attempting to hire some trans camera crew. Unable to find them, he’d settled on a very talented cisgender crew. I was truly impressed he’d made the effort, because very few seem to.

The sad reality is, without real action for change, it’s highly likely Kent will struggle to find trans crew, should he try searching again one day. It follows, if we’re not seeing trans people gaining crew experience, then we’ll not suddenly find a trans camera operator or two – and, ipso facto, there’s no likelihood of a trans DoP ever bringing their understanding of light and shadow, Life and people, to a screen near you. Period. And I’m convinced it’s an issue in every area of screen storytelling. Do I have any right to ignore this?

All of this leads me to question my right to limit my concerns to those affecting me directly, as an ageing trans woman. If I’m to insist stories of trans and gender-diverse people need to be developed with authenticity, more than tokenism, should I not ensure I hold other elements of my tales to the same standards? At both ends of the lens? I believe I can. It creates complexities, can come with some financial costs, but I’ve discovered things I can try to do.

Early in this new career, I agreed to do consultancy on a couple of projects with trans characters. I think I did some valuable work, but it still resulted in cisgender writers creating stories about trans characters; it didn’t feel right. So nowadays, if asked about consultancies, I open a discussion about collaborative co-writing. To date, it’s cost me some work – but also given me a fantastic co-writing development, now progressing closer to a shoot date. Not always easy, but it feels right and I’m far happier.

I feel obligated to do likewise, when my stories include others whose difference differs from mine. For instance, my slate includes an optioned feature with an Aboriginal man as one of the primary characters. Having worked with - then within, shared my life with – the Tasmanian Aboriginal community for much of the past thirty years, I suspect I could do justice to this man’s character and story, but it would still be this little white duck creating an Aboriginal man’s tale. For me, the only legitimate way to take this story further is to co-write it. No hiring of consultants; instead, working out a deal with the right Aboriginal creative to do it together, to share the writing credits and fees. If this can’t be, then – for me - the story shouldn’t be.

Similarly, I’ve an optioned comedy series in development. It’s to be co-written with a comedian who inhabits the world of dungeons and dominatrices – because this is the story’s world. The crazy story idea’s mine, but the world’s not mine to create.

As a logical extension of all the above, I’d have to walk away from a story lacking truth in casting. I’m tired of the arguments used to justify Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl or – closer to home – ticking the “queer diversity” box by casting a cisgender lesbian as a trans man. For me, it matters not how excellent these stories might be, they continue to do a disservice to the people whose stories are co-opted. If you can’t cast authentically, then what are you doing telling the story? Would you be OK with casting a white New Zealander as the Aboriginal detective, Napoleon Bonaparte? Not so long ago, people did this. It might usually be more subtle than the days of blackface, but it still happens in other ways. I may have been around this game for just a few short years, but I’ve already seen too many of these worrying casting decisions. Whatever the justification, it’s not a practice I want to live with, or support.

Still from First Day S2, three young girls on a Merry Go RoundFirst Day S2

I’ve found I can apply this approach in other ways. When it came time to talk about shooting a proof-of-concept for my comedy project, I negotiated with the producer – an international company – to use the production as a chance for Tasmanian women to take on all the juicy tasks they often don’t see outside of their own shorts or agency initiatives. They agreed, and we shot with women as co-producer, director, DoP and editor. And stills, MUA, costumes, production design and more.  Maybe a small step, but it all adds up, and it came by simply asking.

If I’m to work successfully in this industry, I want my ideas to become scripts through collaboration with people who’ve an absolute right to own those characters and, then, to have those characters portrayed by actors who belong in the roles because of their realities.

I’m wanting to ensure the making of these stories also contributes to representation behind the lens. That they get us closer to the day when it’s not hard to find a trans DoP in this country, to shoot my tale. Or from any other marginalised and seldom-seen community. Where it’s unremarkable to stumble on a shoot with as varied a bunch of people as I might find in a mall full of shoppers.

I recognise I’m not alone in wanting to see these changes. I realise they are already happening, individuals and organisations put much effort into achieving greater diversity and representation in all aspects of the industry. Screen Australia has, without question, brought real change through initiatives such as Gender Matters et al and its strong guidelines around Indigenous storytelling. Which leads me to think it’d be truly worthwhile to have similar guidelines in place for the stories of all marginalised and underrepresented communities. Same obstacles, quite possibly the same solutions. Just a thought.

Another thought. Is it only the responsibility of individuals and Screen Australia? Do other industry bodies and guilds need to consider holding their members to strict guidelines/protocols on these issues? They all have influence and I can readily think of a couple of quite recent productions unlikely to have won industry awards, if winning required more than a tick-a-box approach.

I should possibly apologise for the preachiness. Except I’m getting old, I’ve been dead already and I’m part of a community constantly under attack, seldom - and seldom honestly - represented on screen and very rarely creating or controlling its own stories. And it’s only one of many communities in the same space and lacking the privilege others don’t need to consider. I stumbled into this industry and now feel obliged to speak out, to do what I can to prick a conscience or two. It’s all past due and I don’t have a lot of time to waste.

I think this is what I’m trying to do with my stories. We’ll see. Well, I hope someone will see them. I could use the credits!

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Screen Australia.