Darlene Johnson.

Dunghutti filmmaker Darlene Johnson is the inaugural recipient of Sydney Film Festival and Deutsche Bank’s $20,000 First Nations fellowship.

Aimed at mid-career creatives with a proven track record, the initiative facilitates self-directed professional development or industry placement.

Johnson will work with Aquarius Films to undertake both a producer and director’s attachment, while also developing with the company her own original TV drama concept.

While Johnson forged her early career in documentary with projects like River of No Return and The Redfern Story, in recent years she has shifted back into drama. Her 2015 short film Bluey won SFF’s Event Cinema Australian Short Screenplay Award, and more recently, her directing credits include Aquarius’ Born to Spy, The Heights, Neighbours and Home and Away. She was also in the writer’s room for upcoming Netflix/Peacock drama Irreverent.

For Johnson, the fellowship has come at an opportune time, as she builds her career in long-form narrative.

“It’s such a perfect opportunity because it’s hands-on technical and production experience, which is really hard to come by, with a very specific purpose – to then go on to develop and produce my own TV show with Aquarius Films,” she tells IF.

The production company – founded by Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford – was immediately supportive of Johnson and her project, which she describes as a supernatural crime thriller inspired by her own Aboriginal ancestry and experiences as a documentarian.

“They’re very passionate about my project and can see its commercial and creative potential. That’s hugely exciting because that’s very hard to come by; it’s very difficult to find those partnerships where you really connect on that creative level and people respond with such enthusiasm.”

Deutsche Australia CEO Glenn Morgan said the bank knew when launching the fellowship, it would attract outstanding talent, but the quality of applications had exceeded all expectations.

“On behalf of everybody at Deutsche Bank, congratulations to Darlene for winning. We can’t wait to see where your career takes you and we hope the grant helps.”

In addition to the Fellowship, Deutsche Bank will support SFF through a partnership alignment with the Festival’s First Nations Film program, which is also supported by Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department.

Over the past seven years Sydney Film Festival has screened 258 Australian films across features, documentaries and shorts, of which roughly 50 were made by First Nation filmmakers. The hope is that the fellowship will continue to support this filmmaking.

“First Nations filmmakers make some of the greatest films from Australia and there’s evidence of that through film festival selections in the great festivals all around the world,” said SFF director Nashen Moodley.

“I’d like to congratulate Darlene Johnson, a very deserving first recipient of the Fellowship.”

This year’s Sydney Film Festival is planned for November 3 – 14.

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