February 2012: Diversity in Film and TV Becomes a Hot Topic in the Media
The importance of seeing diversity on the screen became a super ‘hot topic’ this month! The main themes – which the AAFFN thoroughly supports – is that actors, filmmakers and audiences are more than ready, and really keen to see faces and stories on the screen that reflect their everyday diverse and multicultural society, including from Indigenous, Asian Australian and a range of other ethnic backgrounds that make up the multiple storytelling heritages and rich talent that reflects the real Australia.
Most recently, The Australian (27 February) published the Opinion piece, ‘Commercial TV Drama Blind to Casting White out Reality’ written by Annette Shun Wah of Performance 4a, a pioneering actor, director and producer, who we were also most fortunate to have as the keynote speaker at the AAFFN’s inaugural event in 2011 and as a current AAFFN Special Advisory Group member. Shun Wah writes, “While no significant quantitative research into TV diversity has been conducted since 1999, the perception that our commercial small screen drama lacks cultural diversity remains strong.” She discusses the limited roles actors like those of Asian Australian backgrounds can get, such as being only cast as waitresses, gangster ‘molls’ or gang members while a range of roles go to Anglo actors. Rather than stereotyping, she reminds us, “A policy of “colourblind” casting has been advocated by the MEAA union for decades, but to limited effect”. She concludes, “Let’s give the viewers their due. We would all love to see characters who look like ‘us’, whose dramatic lives resonate with ours, so that we can truly engage with them.”
Also this month, actor Firass Dirani, star in Neighbours and Packed to the Rafters, called for commercial producers in TV to an end a type of ‘White Australia policy’ he believes occurs in local Australian casting trends (Daily Telegraph 15 February). Praised for bringing more diversity were shows such as East Meets West 101, The Straights, The Slap and Offspring.
Dirani’s interview article was joined quickly after by another article about diversity on the screen, with an interview with Jay Laga’aia (Daily Telegraph 16 February), a popular actor in the ABC Play School children’s television, who was also in Home and Away but had his contract ended. The actor expressed strong concerns that mainstream Australian television needs to be much more supportive of diversity on its screens. Laga’aia also stated on Twitter that he was “…someone who lost his job on H&A because they couldn’t write two ethnics that weren’t together, I’d like a chance to ply my trade freely.”
The importance of casting more diversely in Australia has also generated news stories offshore, including an article in BBC Online featuring Sachin Joab, who plays Ajay Kapoor, a member of the first ever South Asian family to move into Neighbours’ Ramsay Street (BBC Asia Network, 2 February 2012).
Film scholars have also come out to support these actors concerns, as seen in an article by Dr Melissa Phillips at the University of Melbourne about ‘All-White television’ programming failing to reflect Australia’s diversity (National Times on 21 February), and by Brisbane based research fellow Dr Sukhmani Khorana from The University of Queensland who highlighted similar themes in radio interviews for Radio National (Radio National 17 February) and Radio 2SER (2SER 19 February).
Furthermore, journalist Peta-Jane ‘PJ’ Madam of SBS News, who we were also fortunate to feature as a speaker at the AAFFN’s inaugural event in 2011 and who is currently an AAFFN advisory group member, produced a short story for SBS Television on the difficulties Asian Australian actors can face in getting roles in mainstream programs (SBS, 21 February). The story featured three speakers from the AAFFN’s inaugural event panels: Peta-Jane Madam (TV journalist), Joy Hopwood (actor) and Joyce Yuen (agent).
The voices of more Asian Australians will also soon feature in a special issue of Peril Magazine on the AAFFN – to be launched 10 March so keep an eye out here for updates! The issue features the event’s opening address by the AAFFN keynote speaker Annette Shun Wah (Eat Carpet, The Noise, This Floating Life & current President of Performance 4a), as well as a mix of ‘vox pop’ and feature interviews with panel speakers such as Peta-Jane Madam (SBS News), Maria Tran (director, actor, researcher on Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta and director of Downtown Rumble 6 part series on ABC1, and Quest for Jackie Chan, upcoming feature), Andy Minh Trieu (actor), Joy Hopwood (actor, Joyhouse Productions), Alfredo Nicdao (actor) & Min Tran (director) – by Tseen Khoo, Pearl Tan (Pearly Productions), Jiao Chen (Staple Fiction), Heng Tang (director) – by Owen Leong, Sky Crompton (director), Yu Ye Wu (arts, 4A Centre for Arts & ICE), Somchay Phakonkham (director, actor), David Cuong Nguyen and Hoang Tran Nguyen (Footscray by Night), Quan Tran (director, photographer), Jack Ngu (actor, director) and more, plus reflections from the AAFFN co-conveners (Amadeo Marquez-Perez and Dr Indigo Willing) and overview from Peril by Editor & Chief interviewer Lian Low.
More diversity in film and TV means a healthier, more inclusive and vibrant screen scene for everyone and future generations to follow!