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Intro to... the Documentary Unit

Screen Australia’s Documentary Unit discuss their thoughts on the factual sector, applying for funding and what they’re watching.

Also listen to an interview with Alex West on the Screen Australia Podcast here, check out the documentary funding page here, and read the latest documentary production funding slate here. Documentary funding is also available to First Nations practitioners through the First Nations Department here.


Head of Documentary

Alex West

Alex West has produced and directed over 40 factual and documentary series and specials for many TV networks, including BBC, C4, Five, ABC, SBS, and National Geographic. He began his career in the USA, before working with the BBC. Immigration Nation: The Secret History of Us, was nominated for the AACTA/AFI as Best Documentary Series and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. Alex is a three-time Logie nominee. He has recently produced several high-profile ABC doco series: The Art of Australia, Bodyline: The Ultimate Test, Making Australia Great, Revolution School and Monash & Me. In 2020 with Director Nicholas Brown, Alex won the Emmy Award for Best Nature Film for The Serengeti Rules. Alex was appointed Head of Documentary at Screen Australia in July 2021.


Jeni McMahon

Production and Development Investment Lead
As the Lead Investment Manager in the Documentary Unit, Jeni has a deep understanding of how the industry works from both a creative and financial perspective. Formerly an independent producer and principal of Rebel Films, she has close to 25 years’ experience producing and financing award-winning content throughout Australia for broadcast and online. She has been privileged to work with several First Nations communities and practitioners, co-creating hybrid programs such as the iconic and much-loved Bush Mechanics series and the hit online webseries of Black As, with over 200 million views. Her work has taken her the length and breadth of the country; from Broome to Arnhem Land with Cathy Freeman and Deborah Mailman in Going Bush, to Torres Strait with Little J and Big Cuz, and Central Australia for Coniston and Bush Mechanics. She brings a wealth of lived and professional experience to her current role and relishes the opportunity to assist other filmmakers in bringing their work to the screen.


Investment and Development Manager

Sally Chesher

Sally has a long track record of story development and producing across many genres and platforms. She was appointed as an Investment and Development Manager, Documentary for Screen Australia in December 2021. Recent projects she has overseen include The Australian Wars, Great Southern Landscapes, Because We Have Each Other, Me and My Tourette’s and Asking For It. Previously, she worked at the ABC as an Executive Producer, overseeing the development, production and delivery of a slate of Arts projects. She was also Development Manager for Arts, Comedy, Entertainment and Factual and shepherded many short form initiatives, unearthing and championing a new generation of filmmakers in the emerging sector. Her experience extends to the scripted space as an independent producer and freelancer on scripted short films, TV and feature films; an agent representing actors, writers and directors and developing scripted content for Icon Shanahan. In addition, she has been an external assessor for Screen Australia, Screenwest and Screen Queensland. More recently, Sally was a lecturer in Script Assessment for AFTRS.


Investment and Development Manager

Cieron Cody

Cieron Cody is a development/production executive with experience overseeing slates across feature film, documentary, broadcast drama, children’s content, innovation, games and VR. His experience encompasses a breadth of development/production financing programs as well as initiatives designed to advance concepts, elevate talent and build business. In 2017 Cieron departed Screen Queensland as Vice President of Development and Production, supporting the creative and commercial outcomes of a diverse range of content. Cieron has supported a range of award-winning productions with some of Australia’s and the world’s most recognised market players and talent. After several years as Commissioning Editor with SBS/National Indigenous Television, Cieron has joined Screen Australia as Investment and Development Manager – Documentary.


Investment and Development Manager

Daniella Ortega

Daniella Ortega is an Investment and Development Manager at Screen Australia and documentary professional dedicated to excellence in storytelling and communicating complex concepts in innovative ways. She has a background in writing, directing and producing high-end award-winning documentaries about science, history and natural history. Daniella’s work has traversed subjects as diverse as archaeological discovery, the unfolding climate crisis and the mysteries of the teenage brain across feature docs, television series, single hours and short form doc.  At Screen Australia, Daniella is drawing on her experience to support the wider documentary industry with a particular focus on supporting the development of new projects.  


Alex West: Developing and Co-creating the widely seen history/genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?

Jeni McMahon: Creating a replica Bush Mechanics vehicle for permanent display in ACMI’s new exhibition space. The car was painted in Yuendumu by Bush Mechanics co-director Francis Jupurrulla Kelly and Warlpiri elder Thomas Jangala Rice and involved a 7000km road trip through Victoria, South Australia, NT, NSW (where it was chopped in half) and then transported back to Melbourne where it now sits proudly alongside the Mad Max Interceptor. An epic journey for an iconic vehicle.

Sally Chesher: Rather than name one highlight, I’ll be more general and explain that one of the most rewarding parts of the work I do is supporting emerging talent and seeing them grow and succeed in the sector. Over the years, I can look back and feel warm and fuzzy knowing I had a role in creating opportunities for talented filmmakers who have gone on to make fantastic content that connects with audiences locally and globally.

Cieron Cody: Seeing the first documentary feature I’d commissioned premiere at a reputed film festival to a massive theatre filled with an energized audience. I brought my mum, dad and a best friend and it was the first time I was able to collapse my worlds together and celebrate these things in the one space. The beauty of it was that I wasn’t the only one experiencing some version of this – I was surrounded by it. I was struck with an enriched appreciation of the power of documentary as much more than entertainment, but as a truly unifying community force.

Daniella Ortega: Having joined the team at Screen Australia just over a year ago, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of the projects I have supported become realised or go into production. It’s hard to describe the immense satisfaction knowing that I’ve had a small but significant part in helping these projects, particularly by early career practitioners, transform from dreams into realities. I have been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of these opportunities in my filmmaking career and so I love that I am able to play a part in supporting new talented documentary people.


Alex West: Increasing quality and diversity.

Jeni McMahon: We’re seeing a great mix of projects from all parts of the sector. The industry is now several years into the advent of VOD and this has influenced the type of content being developed and produced. We’re seeing more feature docs, ‘binge-worthy’ series and programs with potential to travel internationally. It’s exciting to see a wave of producers and directors – several of them emerging or mid-career – developing international projects with a uniquely Australian sensibility. Programs such as Stuff the British Stole, and feature docs such as Speedway and The Wolves always Come at Night (both yet to be released) point to this.

Sally Chesher: It feels like the goalposts keep shifting with the continued digital disruption of streamers and availability of online content. Viewing habits have changed so dramatically in the past few years, it’s challenging to keep up. There is so much incredible content available (which is wonderful) and we are seeing some ambitious finance plans with new partners that local producers are working with. It’s a very dynamic space. I’ve also noticed Australian factual talent really punches above its weight on the world stage.

Cieron Cody: I’m seeing lots of new faces from different places; Australia has impressive new talent with a drive for authorship, representation and inclusivity, which is necessary for unlocking original stories that matter. The sector is raising new perspectives that reflect Australia as it’s ‘becoming’ and in doing so equip the Nation to understand and propel the crests of lesser-seen waves in social awareness and change.

Daniella Ortega: I notice that this is a time of opportunity for documentary in Australia. There are many varied and diverse platforms emerging for documentary stories to flourish. The challenge is to seize on these opportunities. I also see a push towards paying close attention to authenticity in reflecting Australian culture onto the screen and behind the camera. Diversity, inclusivity and equity are the key words!


Alex West: Many things. As a big picture comment, I’d say beware of writing a report about an issue, instead tell a story from which the issue emerges.

Jeni McMahon: Evidence that you’ve thought about your audience. Who’s going to watch it? Is the platform or format you’re proposing aligned with where and how your audience consumes its content? It’s really important that producers are thinking about this from the get-go.

Sally Chesher: There are several fundamentals we look for including interrogating why this team is the right team to tell this story (authenticity) – what is it about their style and approach that sets it apart from others and is there a boldness or uniqueness to the voice of the filmmaker or subject? And importantly, a convincing argument as to who the audience/s are and how they will be reached.

Cieron Cody: An application is a great chance to express what you know about your project and make an irresistible case as to the context through which it will have greatest impact. A proposition with clear and purposeful ‘direction’ knows where it’s going and ‘why,’ and this hopefully goes beyond aspiration and brings strength to strategy.

Daniella Ortega: I primarily manage the Documentary Development slate. In Development, what I’m looking for are strong compelling concepts, backed up by great creative teams who can see the projects in their minds and know who their audience is. I am excited by projects that are truly distinct, opening my world in a new way. I value motivated teams that have thought deeply about where they will find the audience for their work and are striving for impact either locally or internationally. When these elements are evident in an application it’s inspiring and energising!


Alex West: The Australian Wars TV series on SBS is a must-see for all Australians in my view. Two beautiful and compassionate feature docs are Clean and Because We Have Each Other.

Jeni McMahon: We’ve funded so many great docs over the past year I’m tempted to list them all. A quick roll call – Franklin, The Giants, Harley & Katya are all beautifully executed feature films, Better Date than Never is a delight, but for me The Australian Wars is absolutely essential viewing. My favourite non-Australian doc was Moonage Daydream – see it on the big screen if you can.

Sally Chesher: It’s like choosing a favourite child! So I’m going to choose two – The Australian Wars, a three-part series directed and presented by Rachel Perkins. It screened on SBS and is now available on SBS On Demand. It’s a ground-breaking, well-researched, beautifully produced series about the history of our colonial settlement and the frontier wars that most of us weren’t taught. Like the best documentaries, it will challenge your pre-conceptions, make you think and reassess our national narrative. It’s deeply moving. The second one I suggest people watch is The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone, a half-hour doc on Netflix. This short doco really packs a punch and tells the story of Georgie Stone, whose activism changed the laws for trans kids in Australia. Another very moving piece, directed by Maya Newell and co-created by Georgie herself.

Cieron Cody: You Can Go Now directed by Larissa Behrendt reveals a portrait of Australian iconoclast and Aboriginal ‘activist masquerading as artist’ Richard Bell. He’s a talented national treasure with a cutting irreverence, megaphoning views of ever timely national importance.

Daniella Ortega: There are many, but I must single out feature documentary Franklin (released in 2022 and at MIFF), about the historical battle to save the Franklin River in the early 1980’s. It’s a beautiful film told through the eyes of a descendant of one of the original protestors.  I love the blend of environmentalism, activism and sheer poetry and beauty portrayed in the film. It’s powerful in its quietness.

My other favourite is The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone (Netflix), a half-hour doc about the life journey of remarkable transgender teen. It gives such a tender and authentic insight into the life experience of transgender young people. Just please watch it. It will open your world.  


  • Better Date Than Never here.
  • Clean on SBS On Demand here.
  • Franklin on SBS On Demand here.
  • Harley & Katya on ABC iview here.
  • The Australian Wars on SBS On Demand here.
  • The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone on Netflix here.
  • The trailers for Because We Have Each Other here, The Giants here and You Can Go Now here.