Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Some questions for George Brandis re my ban and Screen Australian Board accountability, 29th April 2014

The previous 8 pieces of communication (#1 - #8) constitute my attempts, this past six months, to bring this farcical dispute to an fair and just end based on verifiable facts.

The Hon George Brandis MP
Minister for the Arts
Commonwealth Parliament Offices
Level 361 Eagle St
Brisbane QLD 4000                                                                                       

29th April 2014

Dear Senator Brandis

Following on from my letter of 6th Jan. Some questions:

- How much script development money did Martha Coleman earmark for Goalpost Pictures when working at Screen Australia before joining the company in Jan this year?

- How much development and production money has Screen Australia provided to Goalpost Pictures since Rosemary Blight became a member of the board?

- At the March 2014 board meeting, was Goalpost’s HOLDING THE MAN really one of the two only film projects deserving of Screen Australia production funding?

- Is there any limit to the amount of funding that the Screen Australia board can vote to provide to board members film and TV projects?

- Has the board ever knocked back a project presented to it by a board member?

Is it possible to even ask such questions without being accused of intimidating or placing at risk members of the Screen Australia board; of being banned for having the temerity to ask such questions?

The intention of the Screen Australia board two years ago, when it voted to ban me for asking questions such as these, was to do all in its power to destroy my career as an Australian filmmaker. The Board has succeeded in this goal, leaving me with little option but to re-write most of my screenplays in such a way as to hide their Australian origin and to render them American (and in one case) British stories.

In the event that any of my screenplays is produced as a non-Australian film, the Screen Australia board’s victory in banning me will be a pyrrhic one! At present it seems that the most likely contender will be LIFT FOR A LADY (developed in large part by the Australian Film Commission), retitled BAG LADY. If the film is produced as an American story the board will have achieved…will have achieved, precisely what?  

These are the people in whom future of Australian film has been entrusted!

I am now developing most of my film projects in countries where it is the quality of my screenplays that counts; in which producers have zero concern as to whether they like or dislike me personally or feel that I ought to be punished (regardless of the quality of my screenplays) for having the temerity to question their honesty, their integrity, their commitment to the precepts of transparency and accountability. My screenplays are either good, have potential or are deemed to be without merit. This is as it should be. Only in a film culture as parochial as Australia’s is the quality of my screenwriting of secondary importance to whether I am friends with, or a critic of, those who control the script development purse strings.

Parochialism at its worst!

The real shame here is not that I have been banned (I will survive such small-minded bureaucratic nonsense) but the mind-set that such a ban reveals in those within senior management at Screen Australia who make decisions as to which films get made and which are allowed to wither on the vine.  

A couple of years ago a fairly senior bureaucrat at Screen Australia wishing, with the best of intentions, to be helpful, said to me, “James why do you make it so difficult for yourself by criticizing us all the time?” To which I replied, “It is not your job to be backing projects by filmmakers who don’t criticize you and punish those who do. It is your job to back the best projects – regardless of your personal feelings about particular filmmakers.”

Members of the Screen Australia board may well have good personal reasons to dislike a particular filmmaker but their own personal animosity should not interfere with their core job as board members – to develop, nurture and assist into production film and TV projects of the highest possible standard that speak of and to both Australian and international audiences.  This is not the way Screen Australia functioned under Ruth Harley’s stewardship, however. Alas, it is Australian film, Australian culture, that has suffered as a result.

That three fellow filmmakers (four when Rachel Perkins was also a board member) would wish to destroy the career of a fellow filmmaker simply boggles my mind. Regardless of their filmmaking talents, the lack of accountability on the part of Claudia Karvan, Richard Keddie and Rosemary Blight, (refusing to provide evidence of the crimes that led them to ban me) speaks volumes of what is wrong with Screen Australia.  The pettiness, the small-mindedness, the vindictiveness they have displayed in banning me (along with their fellow board members) runs counter to the whole notion of developing and financing vibrant ground-breaking films with the ‘Wow!’ factor that will excite Australian and international audiences.

The board members you should consider appointing during your tenure as Minister, are those capable of putting aside all notions of shared history between applicants and senior bureaucrats (good and bad); putting aside animosity (deserved or undeserved) and being able to base their judgments purely and simply on the quality of projects and not on an assessment of the personality of the filmmaker. The Australian equivalent of Lars von Trier would be banned by the board as it is constituted now because he/she almost definitely not be ‘nice’ to them. On the contrary s/he would probably be quite rude to them and possibly treat them with contempt. I am not a great fan of Lars von Trier and suspect that I would not want to count him amongst my circle of friends, but so what! I don’t particularly like most of his films either, but so what! If it were my job to assess one of his projects I would do so on the basis of the quality of his project, in my opinion, and not on the basis of whether or not he was ‘nice’ to me.

The corollary of punishing Screen Australia critics, of course, is rewarding sycophants, friends, former lovers and business associates. In short, the nepotism that has been rife within Screen Australia for all its short history as Australia’s peak film funding body. Nepotism is not just wrong for the most obvious of reasons, it also plays a significant (and deleterious) role in the production of the poor quality films that have come out of the development and funding processes Screen Australia has had been in place for more than five years now. The lack of transparency and accountability within the organization, (including assessors and the assessment process) has allowed mediocrity to flourish and for repeated failure on the part of filmmakers (and Project Manager and assessors) to be rewarded - the triumph of bureaucratic process over the creative impulse, exemplified by Chief Operating Officer, Fiona Cameron.

If the basic principles of natural justice were operating within Screen Australia, the entire board would be sacked for having banned me without providing me with one iota of evidence of the crimes I was accused of in May 2012. This will not happen of course. There are now too many people, including those within your office, who know that my allegedly intimidating correspondence does not exist, to back down now. Better to sacrifice one filmmaker than to acknowledge, publicly, what all the evidence makes clear – namely that Fiona Cameron, a very senior and powerful members of Screen Australia’s senior management, is a Machiavellian liar. Such is the Screen Australia that you now have under your wing, Minister. Good luck in your attempts to get high quality films produced through organization riven with systemic problems. There will be some good films made, of course, but these will not be because the system in place is working but despite it.

The board’s decision to try and convict me in the absence of any evidence does not, I am sure, have anything to do with animosity towards me personally. I have never met most of those who have banned me. The ban on me is about  sending a very strong message to any future critics of Screen Australia, to any filmmakers who might have the temerity to ask questions or complain about their shoddy treatment: criticize senior management in public, criticize the board in public, and you will suffer the same fate as James Ricketson.

If you believe, Minister, that senior management at Screen Australia and the SA board should be transparent in their dealings with the film community and accountable for the decisions they make, ask them to provide you with whatever evidence they have suggesting that I intimidated and placed at risk members of staff with my correspondence. If they cannot do so, the question must surely, arise:  “What other and more significant issues are senior management and the Screen Australia Board not being transparent and accountable about?” With millions of dollars of tax-payer monies up for grabs, with no complaints process to speak of within Screen Australia, and with a board that bans critics, the stage is set for corruption to flourish and to go undetected.

The issue here, now, is not the ban placed on me (the horse has bolted, the damage done) but the fact that the Screen Australia board could implement such a ban without without providing any evidence at all in support of it; without being accountable to anyone and with no-one within your office even expecting such accountability.

best wishes

James Ricketson

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

# 8 letter to Graeme Mason, 24th April 2014

It may well be (and it is certainly looking that way) that the Screen Australia board’s ban on me may turn out to be a blessing in disguise from a professional point of view. But is the ban, and what it says about Screen Australia, a blessing in disguise for Australian film? I doubt it.

Graeme Mason
Chief Executive
Screen Australia
Level 7, 45 Jones St
Ultimo 2007   

24th April 2014                                                                                               

Dear Graeme

On 11th Nov 2013 I suggested a face-saving way in which Screen Australia could extricate itself from the mess created by the Screen Australia board in banning me as it did two years ago.

“If… Fiona (Cameron) 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  Screen Australia 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.”

Neither you nor the Screen Australia board have seen fit to take my up on this offer of a publicity-free resolution. Screen Australia has, instead, decided to stand by Fiona Cameron regardless of the fact that she demonstrably lied in her assertion that I had made certain statements in correspondence with her. In the board’s estimation, it seems, the sacrifice of one filmmaker’s reputation on the alter of Fiona Cameron’s Machiavellian ambitions is a price worth paying. That the Screen Australia board sanctioned Fiona’s action in having me arrested twice for doing nothing other than sit in the foyer of Screen Australia speaks volumes of the lengths to which Fiona Cameron and the board will go to silence critics and those with the temerity to ask questions or to insist that Screen Australia abide by the precepts of transparency and accountability.

As I enter the third year of the Screen Australia ban on me there is no longer any point in having it lifted.  The damage the ban was intended to inflict has been inflicted and cannot be undone. The horse has bolted. The board will never provide me with evidence of the crimes for which I was banned – raising disturbing questions about the personal and professional integrity of the members. If the board is prepared to ban a filmmaker on the basis of what its members (three of them fellow filmmakers!) know to be a lie, what other decisions does the board make that are equally discriminating or inappropriate? Discrimination can cut both ways. Just as critics such as myself can be punished, so too can friends and former business associates be rewarded. In the absence of a functioning complaints process within Screen Australia and with a proven track record of corporate thuggery (for what else is the banning of a filmmaker in the absence of evidence?) Australia’s peak film funding body is a ripe candidate to be exploited for corrupt purposes.

Through your silence, Graeme, it seems that you too would prefer to maintain the status quo, despite your knowing that I have never intimidated or placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff with my correspondence. You could, if your chose, stand up for a filmmaker rather than for Fiona Cameron and a board that is determined to adhere to a ban that it knows to be based on a lie. Yes, you are beholden to the board but to what extent? Are you able to act independently of the board, as a matter or principle, or does the board see itself as the puppet-master and you as their obedient puppet?

You have had six months now to identify one paragraph, one sentence, one phrase or even one word in my correspondence that is intimidating or which places members of Screen Australia’s staff at risk. If you have found such evidence, release it to the film community and demonstrate to it that you, as Chief Executive, believe my being banned was an appropriate course of action for the board to pursue. If you can find no such evidence, make a public declaration of the fact and demonstrate that you make your judgments based on facts, on evidence and will not be a party to the petty vindictiveness displayed by the Screen Australia board; demonstrate to the film and TV community that you are committed to the precepts of transparency and accountability and will not be using threats (either overt or covert) to  silence filmmakers who may wish to criticize your stewardship of Screen Australia in pubic fora.

It is time to bring to an end the Ruth Harley approach to running Australia’s peak film funding body and to usher in a new era in which a commitment to transparency and accountability are not just clichés to be included in mission statements but accurately reflect the way in which the organization is run.

Please, Graeme, either provide me with evidence that I intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff (if you have such evidence) or stand up to the board and tell its members they should stop protecting Fiona Cameron and apologize to me for having inappropriately placed the ban on me two years ago. 

best wishes

James Ricketson