Thursday, January 28, 2016
Dear Minister Mitch Fifield, I think the time is long overdue for reform within Arts bureaucracies.
Senator Mitch Fifield
Minister for Communications and the Arts
4 National Circuit
Barton, ACT 2600
25th Jan 2016
Dear Senator Fifield
Following on from my letter of 18th Jan.
It is inevitable that there will be disagreements within the arts sector as to the most efficient, effective and appropriate way to support the arts. It is inevitable that artists (into which category I include filmmakers) will disagree, either as individuals or as members of a guild, with policy makers within arts bureaucracies. It is inevitable that arts bureaucrats will be subjected to criticism from those who disagree with the policies they have put in place.
However, just as all artists must subject their work to the judgment of critics (an often painful experience) so too should arts bureaucrats be prepared to have their policies subjected to the judgment of both artists and the general public. Such criticism should not be muted by fear, on the part of critics, that they will be punished for speaking out; for expressing opinions that might not be welcome by firmly entrenched arts bureaucrats.
In short, arts bureaucrats should be able to take it on the chin. They should not, when criticized, resort to either official or unofficial bans on their critics.
I have no first hand experience of other arts sectors but I do know, from my 40+ years of experience as a filmmaker, (banned by Screen Australia for close to four years now) that film bureaucrats do punish those who have the temerity to question them, to challenge their policies, to demand of them that they abide by the precepts of transparency and accountability they espouse in their mission statements and other such public declarations.
To the best of my knowledge I am the only filmmaker in any democratic country in the world who has, since the days of Joe Mc Carthy, in the 1950s, been effectively banned by his or her government from making films. This is the reality for me in a country in which all filmmakers must, in order to qualify for tax incentives, be able to communicate with Screen Australia. Screen Australia staff have been instructed not to even talk with me on the telephone!
To make matters worse, the ban on me is based on the premise that I intimidated and placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff with my correspondence. This is simply not true. I have been asking Screen Australia for close to four years now to provide me with one instance in which I have done so. If I was guilty as charged, Screen Australia would very easily be able to provide examples from my correspondence and bring this banning saga (farce) to an end.
If there is any evidence at all that I intimidated, attempted to intimidate or place at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff, my being banned is an appropriate response to such behavior. If I am not guilty as charged Screen Australia has not only rendered it close-to-impossible to make films in Australia but defamed me.
I believe that it is an integral part of your job as Minister for the Arts to request of Screen Australia that it make public any instances in which I have intimidated and placed at risk members of staff. If Screen Australia cannot do so you should ask the board to explain why it believes that I should be banned. I do not want an apology for this unwarranted banning. Indeed, I would not accept one were it offered. What I want and expect is that I am proven guilty of the charge of intimidation and placing at risk or I am proven innocent. My reputation is much more important to me than the ban itself.
It was Ruth Harley’s intention, of course, in placing the ban in the first place, to inflict as much damage as possible on my career. In this she has succeeded admirably - with the blessing of a Screen Australia board that has never concerned itself with whether or not there was evidence of my guilt.
Even attempting to make a film without film funding of any kind is problematic. I recently spoke with a young and talented actress about playing a role for a very modest fee in one of my feature films, HONEY. It is my intention (my hope) to make this film for close to zero budget. She loved the screenplay and was very keen. And then she googled me and found out that I was a banned filmmaker. Her enthusiasm disappeared overnight. She still loved the screenplay but…
I could never find out what the ‘but’ referred to. Had she been advised by her agent that working with a banned filmmaker would not be a good career move? Did she believe that I had intimidated members of Screen Australia staff? Placed them at risk? If so, her new found hesitancy could be well understood.
I will never know why this young actress suddenly went cool on the project; only that it occurred immediately after she googled me. And I will never know how many others with whom I would like to work have likewise googled me and found good reasons (despite these reasons being lies) not to have anything to do with me.
Screen Australia defamed me in 2012 by making allegations that are untrue. This defamation continues to this day in the Screen Australia board’s refusal to either lift the ban or to provide evidence in support of the reason for imposing it.
Perhaps this is the way in which the board insists on continuing to punish me for publishing articles such as the one enclosed in which I question the appropriateness of board members voting huge amounts of money to their own film projects.
One solution to the problems I have outlined here, and which I think you will find in other sectors of the arts, is to keep arts bureaucrats moving; rotating in and out of their position. Allow senior arts bureaucrats contracts that are limited to 6 or 8 years before they must give up their job to another bureaucrat with new and different ideas and return to the profession for whence they came for a few years at least.
The problem is that entrenched bureaucrats form into cliques. They have their friends, their enemies (critics) and favours owed for good deeds done to them by a previous batch of bureaucrats who have now moved back into the ‘industry’. And the current batch of bureaucrats are also looking for their next job, should the one they are in cease to be available to them. What better way to guarantee your future than to give money to applicants who may, at some point in the future, be in a position to provide you with a job.
All this is known to any and everyone who works in Australian film but it is an elephant in the room that no-one wishes to talk about in public. With good reason. To even suggest (if you will excuse the mixing of metaphors) that the Emperor has few if any clothes on, is to invite being banned. Usually such bans are unofficial. In my case the ban was made official.
If you wish to reform the arts sector, Mr Fifield, you have a lot of work to do.
cc Graeme Mason
Screen Australia Board
Australian Directors Guild