Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dialogue, debate and the free flow of ideas

Each day it comes as something of a surprise to me that my blog continues to get so many page hits! I am sure it is not because the minutiae of my dispute with Screen Australia are of much interest to anyone other than myself. I presume it is that readers recognize that something is at stake here that is relevant to the industry at large.

Another note to the office of Ombudsman:

In Nov 2010, instead of asking Fiona Cameron to produce the ‘greenlit’ correspondence she claimed I had written, your office just presumed, after a conversation with Fiona on the phone, that it must exist. It took me a further 20 months of ‘harassing’ correspondence (plus 2 FOI requests and a complaint to the Information Commissioner) to get hold of correspondence that does not support Fiona’s version of events – a version that very neatly absolved her of any need to actually deal with the demonstrable facts that underlay my complaint. Now there is another lot of intimidating correspondence that I have allegedly written. Will the office of the Ombudsman ask Ruth Harley to produce the correspondence or will I have to spend another 20 months ‘harassing’ Screen Australia to acquire copies – only to discover, in 2014, that there is no evidence at all of my having intimidated anyone?”

And this to the Information Commissioner:

Screen Australia’s FOI officer has informed me that my request for specific examples of my having intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff in my correspondence is not a valid FOI request. Is this so? Can Ruth Harley accuse me (or any other filmmaker) of having written intimidating correspondence , ban them on the basis of the alleged correspondence and then use FOI legislation in this way to deny me access to my own correspondence?”

Back to where I left of yesterday. Here’s a proposition. Others will disagree with it. This is how it should be in a community in which there is a free flow of competing ideas: We have in place, in our film culture, our film industry, what amounts to an autocracy of senior bureaucrats that does all it can to resist the free flow of information or, when opportunities for information flow occur, to be either in control of the way it flows or as in control as possible. When there is an ‘industry forum’ of some kind organized by film bureaucrats it is invariably one in which a few bureaucrats sit on a stage, at a table and talk at as opposed to engage in dialogue with the assembled filmmakers. Each bureaucrat gives us his or her take on where Australian film is at right now, where it is heading, its strengths and weaknesses. No non-bureaucrat gets to speak, to present an alternative view for the assembled filmmakers to consider. After the bureaucrats have delivered their mission statements filmmakers are invited to ask questions from the floor but the resultant Q & A is limited both in time and in scope. The format makes impossible vigorous debate about any of the matters raised by the bureaucrats in their mission statements or other topics that filmmakers might wish to discuss. Such ‘industry forums’ are rare but nonetheless presented as ‘consultation with the industry’. This is consultation of the lowest level. Clayton’s consultation.

A real debate is one in which a particular proposition is argued, for and against, by opposing teams with differing (and hopefully provocative) points of view. At the end of the formal part of the debate comments from the floor are invited by the moderator. Ideally, members of both teams will have their ideas challenged and speakers from the floor will present new and different ideas for all involved to take away with them to think about, talk about in their respective guilds and associations. And the bureaucrats making up one of the teams (my suggestion) will have been appraised of what the collective feelings of the industry are and be in a position to respond to them accordingly. Quite apart from the free flow of ideas (always a good thing) such debates, held on a regular basis, would serve to break down the us-and-them mentality that pervades the industry.

When was the last time anything like a real public debate happened in our industry? Why is it that we wait until Screen Australia or a state funding body organizes a pale and attenuated version of a debate? Why don’t we organize one for ourselves? Yes, SPAA, the Writers Guild and Director’s Guild have their annual conferences and other get-togethers in which they discuss matters of interest to their members (as is appropriate) but how often do all three (along with other lobby groups) get together to discuss, argue about the many things we share in common as we pursue our craft, our art or whatever name we chose to give to our chosen profession as story-tellers.

At the root of my dispute with Screen Australia there is the presumption on the part of Ruth Harley and other senior bureaucrats that this is their industry and that we filmmakers had best behave ourselves if we want to get a slice of the pie. I have even been asked, by a Screen Australia bureaucrat, “James, why do you make life so difficult for yourself by criticizing us all the time”. My response, “It is not my job to be nice to you and it is not your job to differentiate, in making decisions, between those that do not criticize you and those who do. Your job is to back the best possible projects.”

This is our industry and Harley et all are public servants working, on behalf of the Australian tax-payer, for us, not the other way around.

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