Newly-appointed Screen Australia head of First Nations Angela Bates is taking an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to the role, insisting her focus is on furthering the strides made by her predecessors.
Bates, who first joined the department in early 2019 as development and investment manager, had the opportunity to work closely with previous head Penny Smallacombe, who vacated the position in May after more than six years.
Speaking to IF, she said she would draw on the five strategic pillars identified in The Next 25 Years, a strategy that Smallacombe developed in consultation with filmmakers and industry stakeholders during the department’s 25th anniversary year in 2018.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” she said.
“There are five key pillars that underpin The Next 25 Years strategy – Indigenous storytelling, identifying stories and talent, developing talent, connecting talent, and advocating for indigenous representation and leadership.
“I don’t have a crystal ball but I feel the future for First Nations productions is very bright.”
Bates’ own experience spans producing, writing, journalism, and documentary filmmaking across a career of more than two decades. Some of her most notable achievements have been TV, including setting up the first nightly Indigenous news service to be broadcast nationally as the inaugural executive producer for NITV National News, as well as establishing half-hour weekly panel program Awaken, hosted by Stan Grant.
The former reporter said the creation of more opportunities for First Nations practitioners and an increase of talent shining through had characterised her time in the industry.
“When I started, we didn’t have a national Indigenous television service and I think it has just been a slow progression over the years seeing the opportunities come about,” she said.
“Seeing our filmmakers do their first feature film, which we saw with Warwick Thornton and Samson and Delilah, and then now watching more and more filmmakers developing television series in line with what seems to be the global trend at the moment.”
There have been numerous examples of the global appetite for First Nations perspectives across the past few years.
Thornton’s Sweet Country premiered Venice Film Festival in 2017, where it won the Special Jury Prize, before winning the Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival the same year.
In 2020, the second series of Bunya Productions’ Mystery Road, which Thornton directed with Wayne Blair, screened in Berlinale Series, while earlier this year, Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson was selected for SXSW.
The First Nations department is also working with SBS and NITV on Bunya Productions’ drama True Colours, which is shooting in the Northern Territory’s Macdonnell Ranges.
Bates said the scope of what was being made was one of the most pleasing aspects of today’s climate.
“It’s exciting to see the current crop of First Nations creative talent doing outstanding work, from the old guard of Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins, Steven McGregor, Erica Glynn, and Beck Cole, through to the newish wave that is coming through in Kodie Bedford, Nakkiah Lui, and Enoch Mailangi,” she said.
“There is also Jake Duczynski, who did the animation for Cooked, and Jub Clerc, who has written and directed her first feature film Sweet As in WA.”
When it comes to developing new talent, recent initiatives include No Ordinary Black, in partnership with NITV and the state screen agencies for emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander filmmakers.
There is also funding of up $50,000 available per financial year for screen sector organisations and agencies to run professional workshops and initiatives designed to further develop First Nations practitioners.
Bates said the department remained focused on making the industry more accessible and supporting authentic voices and stories by providing more opportunities for filmmakers of all experiences.
“Obviously, digital media has disrupted traditional business models, so we’ve looked at partnerships in the SVOD space and supported initiatives such as the Bunya Talent Hub with Netflix,” she said.
“We’re looking at opportunities that can help support filmmakers at all levels of their career, whether they be emerging, mid-career, or established.”