Monday, January 6, 2014


Holy shit! Starbucks has banned screenwriters I discover:

Starbucks, the international coffee company, announced today that it is banning all screenwriters from its 19,435 locations worldwide, effective immediately.  The move comes after a study commissioned by the company revealed that screenwriters not only spent the least amount of money at their coffeehouses, but they also have “a depressing and desperate air about them that spoils everyone else’s experience.”

Damn, so I can no longer drink bad coffee as I write in Starbucks! Bummer!

Next up, in a more serious vein, my google research finds me back in the 1950s when Joe McCarthy (determined to root out “subversive elements within American culture,”)  and the House of Un American Activities saw to it that directors, actors and particularly screenwriters were boycotted by the film studios - Dalton Trumbo, Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin amongst them. Trumbo even spent 11 months in jail for refusing to cooperate with the House of Un American Activities. Some of the banned screenwriters continued to write under pseudonyms or the names of colleagues but very few succeeded in rebuilding careers within the entertainment industry as a result of being labeled ‘Commies’.

Between the 1950s and 2012 I can find no example of any screenwriter in a Western style democracy, other than myself, who has been banned. 

Next question for Professor Google: How about ‘banned filmmakers’ - since I am a filmmaker who, amongst other things, writes screenplays? Here, again, I find myself pretty much alone this past half century in the ‘free world’ (the parentheses are required, I think!) in being banned. This kind of thing happens in Iran today and within other theocracies, dictatorships and countries in which there is no freedom of speech.

The most recent and celebrated instance of a filmmaker being banned is the respected Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi - arrested and given a six-year sentence in prison, while also being barred from making films, writing scripts, traveling abroad and speaking with media for 20 years. His crime? Panahi was convicted of making an anti-government film without permission; of "propaganda against the state". As a journalist observed at the time:

Obviously, banning someone from making a film is a form of censorship and an infringement on free speech rights. And, of course, Iran does not have a particularly good reputation on free speech issues.”

So, have I been, am I being, censored as a screenwriter, as a filmmaker, by Screen Australia? No, not really. Censorship of my filmmaking work was not the intention when Ruth Harley recommended to the Screen Australia Board that I be banned  - 20 months ago now. The intention, which has backfired badly, was to silence a filmmaker who had the temerity to expect transparency and accountability from senior management at Screen Australia; to punish a critic who had the audacity, when told demonstrable lies, to insist on evidence in support of these lies and, when he was provided with no such evidence (unsurprising, since it did not exist) called these members of senior management who had lied, liars. It is not the done thing to refer to members of senior management at Screen Australia as liars – regardless of the incontrovertible evidence that they play hard and fast with the truth, are parsimonious with the truth or whatever euphemism one chooses to use to describe this particular form of perfidy.

For the industry at large the lies told to and about me may seem to be, on the surface, of no real consequence, (and tiresome to keep reading about on my blog!) However, it is worth bearing in mind Friedrich Nietzche here:

  “I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.”

Ruth Harley has left the hallowed halls of Screen Australia now but others in senior management remain whose relationship with, commitment to, the truth is tenuous. And then there is the Screen Australia Board – still supporting the ban, still refusing to provide evidence of my having intimidated staff etc and maintaining a rather undignified silence when asked questions as simple as “Evidence, please.” As Yevgeny Yevtushenko said:

“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”

To suggest that the Screen Australia Board, through its silence, is complicit in Ruth Harley’s lies is probably, in the Looking Glass world that was Ruth Harley’s SA, evidence of harassment – one of the crimes I have been charged with and found guilty of in the 9th May 2012 Screen Australia kangaroo court.  ‘Court’ is not really the appropriate word, however, since the Board members did not actually meet in one place to pass judgment on the accused but were merely required to rubber stamp a decision made by Ruth Harley.

Is a blog entry such as the one you are reading evidence of intimidation? Or of my placing Screen Australia staff at risk? It is if Fiona Cameron’s definition of intimidation prevails:

“I feel intimidated therefore I am being intimidated.”

I am paraphrasing here, of course, but this is Fiona’s position. And Fiona is Chief Operating Officer at Screen Australia. Be careful, fellow filmmakers, to say or write nothing that Fiona might feel intimidated by! This can include questions she simply does not want to answer. Questions like, “Evidence, please, Fiona, of my having written what you allege I have written in my correspondence.” And beware if you should ever have reason to complain about Fiona Cameron’s behavior because the person who investigates complaints about Fiona Cameron is Fiona Cameron. At least this was so with Ruth Harley at the helm. Perhaps not with Graeme Mason at the helm. Hopefully not.

Collateral damage! Is there any that accrues to my being banned? Yes. More than half of the 10 feature projects I am working on either have (or require) a co-writer, a co-producer or a director. I cannot collaborate with any other filmmaker, however, as s/he would be, by virtue of her association with me, likewise banned from applying for script development of any other Screen Australia funding. An odd state of affairs, in my view – particularly given the high concentration of fellow filmmakers on the board.

Who benefits from the banning not only of myself but of my filmmaking collaborators? The industry at large? Hardly, given that one of my ten screenplays in development might have the potential to be a hug box office hit? Screen Australia itself? It is hard to see how Screen Australia benefits from my being banned – except insofar as it discourages other filmmakers from being critical of the organization or asking difficult questions. The ban has certainly been beneficial to Screen Australia in this respect – virtually no fellow filmmakers who support me in private prepared to support me in public.

The problems inherent in our peak film funding body not being open to criticism and being neither transparent nor accountable are obvious.

In reality, those most hurt by the ban on me are those filmmakers with whom I am collaborating or with whom I would like to collaborate. Collaborating with a banned filmmaker is not a great career move and not great for the bank balance if, as a result of such collaboration, Screen Australia doors close on you.

My attempts to resolve my dispute with Screen Australia have been many and varied this past 20 months but none has been successful –  because all of my suggestions have been based on the premise that evidence of my having intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff should be assessed by an independent conciliator/arbitrator and not by anyone who has a vested interest in the outcome. Certainly not Fiona Cameron.

Actually, there is a much simpler solution – offered by me more times than I can count now: Make public a few examples of my having intimidated and placed at risk…etc. The release of such evidence would reveal that I have been lying this past 20 months in insisting that no such evidence exists.

This easy solution will never occur because SA can point to no instance in which I am guilty and Fiona Cameron’s “I feel intimidated therefore I am being intimidated” would not pass the laugh test if it were subjected to scrutiny by anyone outside of the organization.

In the interests of transparency, here is my latest attempt to get the Screen Australia board to do more than pay lip service to the precepts of transparency and accountability. It has yielded no response but perhaps this is as a result of all interested parties being caught up in Christmas and New Year’s festivities. Perhaps in this the second week of Jan, the Screen Australia Board may see fit to deal in the appropriate way with the contents of my letter.

Members of the Screen Australia Board
Level 4, 150 William St
Woolloomooloo 2011                                                                     21st December 2013

Dear Board Members

A few days ago, Screen Australia announced changes the Signature Documentary program. My feature documentary project, CHANTI’S WORLD, gets a tick in every box -18 years of self-funded filming so far, no pre-sale to either SBS or the ABC and with both a strong creative vision and the potential for acclaim. The only obstacle to my making an application on 31st Jan 2014 is that each of you has either banned me or voted, collectively, to continue the ban placed on me in May 2012 . This ban has already led to my not being able to take advantage of a pre-sale from a major international broadcaster.

Is it appropriate that the Screen Australia board place obstacles in the way of filmmakers such as those that have arisen for me as a result of the ban you continue to endorse? To what end? Is it gratifying in some way to know that you can punish filmmakers like this? Does it not occur to any of you, if you are going to do such damage to a filmmaker’s career, that you should have the professional courtesy (if not a legal obligation) to provide him with evidence of crimes so bad that banning is the only viable alternative?

When Ruth Harley wrote to the Board on 9th May 2012 asking members to vote on my banning it took less than 24 hours for you and/or your predecessors to agree to Ruth’s request .  No board meeting was required. If there was a will, a few days before Christmas to reverse the ban it could likewise take 24 hours to implement. If there is no will, if you are determined that I not be allowed to apply on 31st Jan to the Signature Documentary program, please at least do me the professional courtesy of providing me with one example of my having intimidated or placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff.

On 11th Nov I suggested the following to Graeme Mason by way of trying to bring this dispute to the least messy ending possible:

“…It is that you and I and Fiona Cameron meet to discuss whatever evidence Screen Australia believes it has in support of the ban. If Fiona can point to anywhere in my correspondence where I suggested or even implied that I believed CHANTI’S WORLD had been greenlit and if either of you can point to even one phrase in my correspondence that places the intended recipient at risk or which is intimidating, I will accept my ban and say no more. If, on the other hand, Fiona cannot identify where in my correspondence I expressed my belief that CHANTI’S WORLD had been greenlit and if neither of you can identify anything in my correspondence that is intimidating etc. the ban should be lifted. This could be done with a minimum of fuss and could be announced by SA along the lines of: “The dispute between James Ricketson and Screen Australia has been amicably resolved and the ban on him has been lifted.” We could agree that neither I nor  SA will comment further. That will be the end of the matter and I can get back to simply making films and stop fighting for the right to be able to make them unencumbered by the Screen Australia ban.”

I still believe that this would be the best way to resolve this matter and thus, if natural justice prevails, leave me free to make a Signature Documentary application on 31st Jan.

best wishes

James Ricketson

It is now just a few days shy of two months since I made this suggestion to Graeme Mason. Yes, his hands are tied by the Board’s ban. Reversing the ban is not Graeme’s call. However, it is hard to imagine that the Board could not have found five minutes at its Dec 2013 meeting, in amongst the time spent voting to provide Board members with substantial amounts of film funding, to discuss and reverse the ban on me if it can provide neither myself nor the film community with evidence of my crimes.

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