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Celebrating 25 years of Indigenous screen stories

The Indigenous screen community came together on the evening of 30 August 2018 at Carriageworks, Redfern, to formally mark 25 years of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department.

The gala evening was hosted by Aaron Fa’Aoso (Little J & Big Cuz, The Straits), with special guest speakers including founding Department Manager Wal Saunders, the Hon Senator Mitch Fifield, Sally Riley (ABC Head of Scripted Production), Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Top End Wedding) and Dylan Rivers (Nulla Nulla).

The formal proceedings included a panel discussion hosted by Margaret Pomeranz with Rachel Perkins (Mystery Road TV series, Bran Nue Dae), Ivan Sen (Mystery Road, Goldstone) and Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah, Sweet Country).

The evening also featured a live comedy performance by Megan Wilding and Elaine Crombie, and a stunning in memoriam sequence set to an acoustic rendition of the David Bowie ballad Heroes by Casey Donovan.

At a media call earlier in the day, the current Head of Indigenous at Screen Australia Penny Smallacombe noted, “When Wal Saunders set up the Indigenous Department in 1993, it would have been unthinkable that over 160 First Nations screen stories would end up being made. Twenty-five years later, it’s unthinkable to imagine the Australian screen industry without our Indigenous stories and the people who tell them. This anniversary is an incredibly special moment in Australia’s cultural history, and one that Indigenous people can treasure.”

Screen luminary Leah Purcell also spoke to the importance of Indigenous screen stories to the community. “Our screen stories shape how we view ourselves and each other. What you see guides how you think. Now ‘mainstream’ Australia is seeing more authentic, diverse, real Indigenous Australians.

“Now more of our mobs are writing, directing, acting, producing and creating and I am very fortunate and proud to be one of them and part of this great movement made possible by Screen Australia and its Indigenous Department. The Indigenous Department and its work are a policy success we need to celebrate and advance.”

The gala was staged with the generous support of the ABC and NITV, plus Film Victoria, Screenwest, Documentary Australia Foundation, Shark Island Institute, Adelaide Film Festival and Carriageworks.

In July 2019, the department released its new strategy document entitled The Next 25 Years.

One of the department’s goals is to identify where there is an absence of Indigenous voices and create workshops, initiatives and opportunities to further the careers of First Nations practitioners in these areas. In 2018/19, these included:


Screen Australia, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Australians in Film Foundation supported seven Indigenous screen practitioners to travel to Los Angeles in November 2018 for a week-long career development program. Participants including Caméra d’Or-winning director Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country) and powerhouse actor, writer and director Leah Purcell (Cleverman) took part in high-level networking opportunities in the US film and television industry.

Penny Smallacombe, Screen Australia’s Head of the Indigenous, said it would help open new doors to expand their already flourishing careers.

“This program is about fostering new relationships to ensure that our Indigenous stories can continue to find international audiences and possible financing beyond Australia. As we’ve seen recently with the Mystery Road series on Acorn TV, there is definitely an appetite for our stories in the US and interest in what our creators can deliver,” Smallacombe said.

COOK 2020

In February 2019, Screen Australia and the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) called for submissions for a new joint anthology feature. The eight successful Indigenous teams from Australia and New Zealand were announced in May 2019. Titled Cook 2020: Our Right of Reply, and Ngā Pouwhenua in New Zealand, the feature will be made up of short chapters that provide an Indigenous perspective on the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s maiden voyage to the Pacific.

“This is a rare opportunity for creative collaboration between Indigenous cultures from Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific,” Screen Australia’s Head of Indigenous Penny Smallacombe said at the time.

In July 2019, the Indigenous Department published the The Next 25 Years: Indigenous Department Strategy to plan for the next quarter of a century of Indigenous screen storytelling.