Commercial TV too white and it’s not alright

Filmmaker Rachel Perkins.

Commercial television had “a long way to go” before it reflected the diversity of Australian society, acclaimed filmmaker Rachel Perkins said this week.

Ms Perkins, the filmmaker behind television series such as Redfern Now and movies such as Bran Nue Dae, said taxpayer dollars spent on commercial TV shows should come with a requirement that casts be multicultural.

She said film and television was an important reflection of society and Australian commercial television was lagging behind its counterparts in the US and UK in representing the mix of its audiences.

“Commercial television is still backward compared to English television. Television in the US is much more multicultural,” Ms Perkins said.

“We’ve got a long way to go. But we’re seeing slow change. I think Neighbours had its first permanent Indigenous actor in it last year.

“Certainly the shows where there are no casting agents involved, like talent shows, you see a lot more diversity there because people are getting through on their talent not their look.”

Australian governments contributed $32.4 million towards the making of 22 feature films for television in the 2015-16 financial year, with $18 million of that coming from Screen Australia and the remainder from State agencies, according to Screen Australia’s 2015-16 Drama Report.

More than half of the TV dramas made in Australia — with total expenditure of $376 million — received some Screen Australia funding. Ms Perkins said that in the US the film union put pressure on the commercial networks for diversity.

She said in Australia there were various ways in which the imbalance could be tackled.

Unions could put pressure on the networks or incentives could be attached to funding.

Film schools should also make places available for people from non-English speaking backgrounds.

“If you look at the funding that is given to support content on the free-to-air commercial networks, a lot of that is Commonwealth funding, it’s not just commercial money, so the government is investing Australian taxpayer money into Australian content and we have a right to ensure the funding is directed to reflect the culture and population of our country,” Ms Perkins said.

Ms Perkins, a co-founder of the National Indigenous Television, said Indigenous film making was experiencing something of a golden age.

“Twenty five years ago when I started there was no Indigenous-specific funding for film and television,” she said.

“Now every State and Federal agency supports Indigenous people and content through its strategies. The National Film and Sound Archive, all sorts of institutions, Screen Australia, the ABC, SBS, State-funding agencies all have that as a key objective.

“I think we’ve cemented our place in the national industry and we are part of the most successful aspect of it.

“Our films, the few that we create, have been not only commercially successful but critically successful and our television programs have been awarded and recognised for the quality.

“Having Sally Riley at the ABC, she’s now the head of drama, that’s the highest Indigenous appointment ever in the film and television industry, so that’s a really high point, an acknowledgement of all the hard work she has done and achieved in commissioning all those shows we know — Cleverman, Redfern Now — those all came from Sally’s desk.

“She’s made a big contribution.”

Ms Perkins’ new film, Jasper Jones, is due to hit Australian cinemas on March 2.

The film is based on the book by WA author Craig Silvey and tells the story of a teenage boy’s battle with local racists.

Wendy Caccetta

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