This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
PREMA MENON (HOST): How many times have you heard the words diversity and inclusivity in the past year, maybe months, or even this week? It can feel like it's all anyone's ever talking about or has ever been talking about. Globally, diversity and inclusivity conversations are centered around realistically reflecting our communities through the people who represent us politically or in the stories that are told. Leading Australian broadcasters and screen agencies have mobilised in the past few years signing a charter to commit to improving diversity of content. In 2019, Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC, released its diversity and inclusion plan. Even though with all the debate and dialogue we've seen, change is far too slow. Greens Senator Dr. Mehreen Faruqi published an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2013 entitled "Why are Vast Numbers of Australians Left Out of Media?".
I quote from the article "At the moment, we don't just have a diversity problem in the media. We have an inclusion crisis. A lack of authentic diversity on screen tends to reflect and result from a lack of diversity off screen in writers' rooms, pitch meetings and executive suites."
Diverse voices are finding their own way in alternative channels, primarily in the online space, because they need to express their stories themselves.
In today's episode, we'll be discussing diversity and inclusivity in Australian content. I speak to a content creator who has been creating his own space in his own voice for over a decade and is now ensuring he gives as many voices a seat at the table.
VONNE PATIAG: I am Vonne Patiag. I am a filmmaker and writer working across stage and screen. I also perform and produce. I am also the director of a production company called In-Between Pictures and we specialize in what we say, stories from within and the in between. But we really like championing a lot of diverse stories and a lot of marginalized identities, creatives who really don't have other platforms to tell their stories. So I'm all about working inclusively with cultural practice and collaborating with communities to sort of tell stories for the Australian landscape.
INTRO: What Can We Do? In this podcast I speak with those who are putting their ideas into action, focusing on the good they can do for their neighbors, communities, citizens and the world.
PREMA: Vonne will take us through how he found his voice and what it means to him, how he used inclusive practices in his web series, Halal Gurls and how underrepresented voices are bypassing traditional platforms for their stories to be heard. Vonne's journey as a storyteller started when he was a child.
VONNE: I watched The Lion King, which was my first film ever in a multiplex in L.A. when I was 5. My mom always recounts the fact that at the end, when the credits were rolling, like I went missing, I was actually on the screen like banging on the screen and my mom's like, my child is weird. What are you doing? I actually said, like, well I want to get behind the screens where the people are. And she always thought it was amazing that I had figured out how films worked, that I knew that there were actors playing the roles in this animated film. And I've always been fascinated with filmmaking and storytelling as long as I could remember. You know, I was a little drama kid, but I was also a kid of Asian parents so didn't get to do drama. I would just come up with stories and write things down. And eventually that translated to a passion for writing and then a passion for songwriting and a passion for screenwriting. I ended up going to film school and that turned into a passion.
PREMA: Vonne is an Australian of Filipino heritage and spent two and a half years of his childhood in America.
VONNE: Moved to Blacktown Dean Park, which is, you know, where all the Filipinos lived. And we still live in Minchinbury which is like Filipino central.
PREMA: Blacktown is a part of western Sydney.
VONNE: Western Sydney is arguably the most diverse area in Australia. But it also is one area that is such a sprawl of different cities and towns that gets bundled up into one word. It's very strange because, um, you know, it's actually bigger than Sydney's CBD. You know, like there's this idea that western Sydney has this monoculture being like the poorer areas or the lower class area. But if anything, it literally is a patchwork of different cultural groups living alongside each other. There's this myth that nothing gets made out here, but if anything, there is so much happening and Sydney just as a city is very city-centric.
PREMA: There are 182 languages spoken in Blacktown. Blacktown isn't an anomaly. There are a number of local government areas that are home to a diverse population in New South Wales, like the Cumberland Council and the city of Fairfield to name a few. So what was it like for a Filipino Australian child growing up in Australia Watching TV and films?
VONNE: I mean, I grew up in the nineties and the noughties where it's just like white protagonists mean girls all white. You know what I mean? Like and you kind of just assumed that the white people were always the protagonists. And it was weird because like I think for me, growing up in western Sydney, where it's naturally diverse, you kind of just expected it.
PREMA: Vonne pursued his passion through Sydney's University of Technology Film School. That's where he made his first official short film and won a film competition. This spurred him on.
VONNE: I got like a thousand dollars prize money. It kind of really showed me that I was like, oh, wow. Like, if you just make stuff, you get the experience. But also, like, people start to recognize you or like they, you know, the more you work, the more you just build up your experience and people and the audience responds to that.
PREMA: University led Vonne to really revel in his passion. It also led him onto another journey. Vonne became more aware of his ethnicity and heritage.
VONNE: It was only really when I started in film school. You know, when I was one of like four Asians or actually four diverse people in like a cohort of 65 and over. And, you know, I start making films and I start working in film. And that's when you start to realize that you're different and that you have no real say in the story. Sometimes the stories you want to tell aren't being told.
PREMA: Even though Vonne was making his own films, he was subconsciously following a formula. Looking back, he says he predominantly cast Caucasian or Caucasian passing actors, even if the stories were adapted from a minority perspective. He felt like he was being held back. Even if he did want to cast non-Caucasian actors, it would have been difficult.
VONNE: You know me graduating in '09 and going out and making films and, you know, you go to the drama schools and you go to you find the working actors who are all at your level and they're all Caucasian, you know, they're all kind of European but white-passing. When you're younger, when you're in emerging space, like you let you just use what you have in terms of story and in terms of developing projects, too. Like I've never really developed a project for a person of colour. I think when you're in your early 20s or this might just be me like it is very you're still honing your craft. So I never really thought, you know, oh this protagonist would be Asian or this protagonist should be, you know, African or this protagonist should be white. It was kind of like these characters are just characters and like, you know, and we'll see what happens and kind of thing.
PREMA: Vaughan developed his career working to gain skills and experience in the creative industry. He took on roles in copywriting, producing, directing, editing and visual effects. He created short films outside of his full-time work. In 2015, Vonne had just produced a horror film that screened at festivals and was working two jobs. He started feeling frustrated with the situation. Vonne quit his jobs to take a sabbatical and travel the world. He returned to Australia a year later to start what he describes as his year of change.
VONNE: Two weeks later, I applied for drama school, got in, moved down to Melbourne for VCA, so I attended VCA for a year for theatre. It was actually really confronting because it was, you know, like all of a sudden I went from being behind the camera, you know, writing and dreaming of characters who could be whatever ethnicity to suddenly being an actor who is, you know, of Filipino heritage, which really does limit the amount of roles you can do or is like a very politicized choice in casting.
PREMA: At the Victorian College of the Arts or VCA, Vonne was cast to play Iago in Othello.
VONNE: The metrics of having like an Asian Iago against, like an African Othello all of a sudden became a thing. And it really showed me that like my intrinsic identity was powerful, as was it just needed. It needs work that's developed to really showcase that.
PREMA: Soon afterwards, Vonne received funding to produce a film. This time, he embarked on a project that was far more personal than anything he'd ever done before.
VONNE: Very lucky because I actually got funding from Olympus Cameras and St Kilda Film Festival to write and direct and star in a short film called Window, which I ended up filming in Blacktown. That was great. It was all about, I guess, like my queer awakening. It was a very personal project. You know, like I never really mined my own story, my own personal story for creative use. And that film did really well. That film ended up playing all the major festivals in Australia. It kind of showed me the power of being yourself. From then on, as a creative, I just started looking at my own life. I am beautiful, like in terms of my identity. And I have a lot to say about myself as well. And I started to, I guess, being more symptomatic and succinct with the stories I told, making clear decisions at the beginning of a project. I think that's what really unlocked my creativity, not only in the professional sense but in a personal sense as well. I think there's a universality in being specific.
PREMA: Vonne's authentic specific approach was noticed by others in the industry. It led to collaborations with the Information + Cultural Exchange, or ICE in Parramatta and Special Broadcasting Service, SBS. this opened doors for Vonne to achieve his first broadcast credit Tomgirl, which aired on SBS in 2018.
VONNE: I just found that each credit helps me get the next thing and you sort of build up from there and then start working with other people and they invite you to their table. Interesting time for me now because I feel like I'm able to be a freelance artist and am sort of steadily working, but I also generate my own projects, too.
PREMA: At the time of this interview, Vonne's project Halal Gurls had just been released on ABC iView and YouTube. The comedy series follows three twenty-something Hijabis who live in western Sydney and navigate the dual culture they live in. Vonne put into practice everything he'd learned in his career in terms of authenticity and inclusive collaboration. The idea for Halal Gurls came from his interactions with Hijabi women he'd met when he was helping his friend Tariq set up a store called Hijab House.
VONNE: So I was spending seven days with about 20 Hijabi women and we would go all break bread together and have pizza together, and I would just sit here in the break room with them and see the most like badass resilient women I'd ever seen. They're the funniest women you ever encounter in terms of public perception. You don't really engage with your jobs and you don't really know how funny they are.
PREMA: Vonne ran the idea past Tariq and wrote a one-page pitch in under an hour and pitched it to his producing mentor, Peter Herbert who loved it. For about 18 months, Vonne spent more time with the community whose story he was going to tell. His aim was to also build trust as Vonne connected with more Hijabi creatives.
VONNE: Then I was lucky enough because Create NSW and ABC were interested in web series. I pitched it to a producer friend of mine, Petra Lovrencic. I assembled the writing crew a full Muslim female writers team and none of them were screenwriters. There was a stand-up comedian. There was a slam poet, a writer like an in terms of fiction and a playwright. And we just put in for an application. You know, that was a really hard process because the idea of a Muslim identity is multifaceted and very diverse in itself. So all these women had a very different idea of what Muslim identity was to them. If we didn't find that central aspect or a central idea that we loved as a community and as a group, then we wouldn't do it. We're making it for a female Muslim community and for the Muslim community, So for me, it was about inviting those creators from that community into the spaces, being like, you know, what do you want to see? What stories do you want to tell? What is comedy to you? You know what's funny to you? What what are the specificities that we want to hit?
PREMA: This was not an easy process, however, especially when you're producing a show for a broadcaster. Vonne and his producing partner Petra had to defend a lot of their choices to ABC executives.
VONNE: There just were a lot of checks and balances that you had to do as a producer. And obviously, when you're working with a broadcaster, you're getting creative over the line. So, again, it came back to the intent of the show, which was to, you know, to showcase Hijabi women as they were and as they are like loving and resilient and badass and beautiful. So, you know, it was a matter of actually listening to the writers' rooms and our key creatives and really listening to what they wanted to see.
PREMA: Vonne has been in this industry for over a decade now and like many others in the field, he feels that Australia is still catching up with the rest of the world.
VONNE: There's just not enough made in Australia that our tipping point is a lot slower. Seriously, Australia is always like weirdly two, three steps behind. Like I have a lot of friends working out of New York now in London where they don't say the word diverse. And personally, I don't hate the word diverse now because I think I'm I'm trying to move past that word in terms of my own work as well. I had a friend, a playwright who works out of New York, and she just was saying, like, they're doing everything right. And like, their practice is so inclusive naturally because this is what's expected at a professional level. And that like to come back to Australia. It's very much like we talk about creative creativity and we talk about work, but it's so politicized. It's like, oh, yeah, I'm a queer Filipino who lives in western Sydney blah blah blah. But I'm proud to have made so much work now that I can. The work speaks for me, so I don't have to like mind my own diversity in a weird way.
PREMA: The tipping point might be a lot slower, but the pace at which diverse voices are emerging is a lot faster. This is brought to bear more pressure for wider change across different types of industry.
VONNE: I think diversity came about because of the online spaces like things like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. It really started taking monocultures like Western culture, you know, as a broad term and started narrowing it down. And I think that narrowing down it and naming the different cultures within that culture. You know, this is the African diaspora in Australia. This is the Filipino diaspora in Australia. And we started to see like, oh, I can post and that can be taken up by that tribe. And then it meant that some of these smaller cultural groups could amass like power. But in a cultural sense, they could community gather. Social media has played a really big part in showcasing the kaleidoscope of diversity.
PREMA: Content platforms are also becoming more democratized, allowing creatives from traditionally underrepresented or overlooked communities to publish their content and find an audience.
VONNE: POC skewed stories and creatives tend to be pushed to the online space. I think what western Sydney is kind of doing is as a diasporic area where we're sort of communicating to the other diasporic areas of the Western world and the world and almost bypassing Australian monoculture, which is why I think the online space is really important for a lot of creatives here. You know, you can make a Web series and release it on YouTube for free. HGTV and Instagram, Facebook, it's allowed a lot of social PEOC creatives to say, like, you know, all I was never invited to the table. And now the conversation is I can start my own table. We just have such a demand for content now that anyone and everyone can make what they want to see that it's actually a very powerful pathway.
PREMA: To Vonne investing in inclusivity goes a long way.
VONNE: You know, inclusivity is that equation one plus one equals three. Right. Like if you're working through an inclusive lens, whatever you create together is always stronger than what you can do separately. Oh, well, we have such a fear of resource scarcity in our country. You know, like there's not enough development funding. There's not enough happening. Like, how are we going to train our emerging sector or where are the students going to go? Six producers working on one project. We'll go further than six producers working on their own projects. I inclusivity is a way to foster community into a very institutionalized art form that has, I feel lost a bit of its way. I think a lot of projects can benefit from a bit of inclusive practice and, you know, inviting the right people to tell the story as well. And yeah, it just makes really kick-ass work that I want to see.
PREMA: Much has been said about the changes that need to happen in media organizations. The first step in telling more inclusive stories is to have an inclusive team of decision-makers. Von also believes that improvements need to be made within funding bodies and councils. Councils in western Sydney need better infrastructure to offer filmmakers there a real launchpad.
VONNE: I think with western Sydney, it's really good that there's a concentration now western Sydney stories coming out of western Sydney because storytelling and art and film like and representation, I think together we're starting to reclaim what Western Sydney is. You know, the more localized stories that we tell, the more we can say, oh, that's a very Blacktown story. Oh, that's a very that was shot in Fairfield. You know, all that's so Parramatta. And I think the more we empower the creatives to actually tell stories from within their own local areas, then we start to see and the power of representation.
PREMA: This change will take time. This is Vonne's advice for anyone starting out in this field.
VONNE: Just make stuff. I know it's so hard. It is so hard to make stuff, especially when you don't know how. But it's really true. The more time you spend doing something, the better you get at it. You know, and like and know that all your skills add up to something. So, you know, I worked as an editor for four years professionally and hated editing. But now I edited all of Hello Girls. I was able to get that project across the line because I could save money. I think just be open to experiences and be open to the idea that creativity comes in different forms. You know, like I'm a really big believer in working with your hands, learn how to cook, learn how to soar. I don't know what else you do with your hands, like knit or not knit. They actually knit. Yeah, that's a good one. I like you learn how to sew all these skills, add up to creativity. And I think like we have to stop thinking of creativity in terms of industry, but we have to start thinking of creativity in terms of being human. Yeah. Just know that all the experiences in your life will add up to something in terms of career. If you're a filmmaker out there, it is gonna be brutally hard. It's so hard. Trust me. But if you sort of wake up every day knowing that that's what you want to do, then I think stick with it, because somehow it will it'll work out. And. You know, out of my graduating cohort, I mentioned four sixty-five people. Only about four people still going in film. A lot of teachers came out of my course. So, you know, like it's not for everyone. And that's also OK. If it's it's OK to leave it, it's OK to pick it up again.
PREMA: Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please rate of all, follow the series on whichever podcast service you're on. Another great way to support this series is to follow it on Facebook or Instagram. Just search for What Can We Do Podcast. You can visit www.whatcanwedopodcast.com where you can learn more about each episode's guests. check out previous episodes and get in touch with me. What Can We Do is an independent podcast series produced and edited by me, Prema Menon, and the script editor of this series is Liza Nadolski, and the audio you hear has been sweetened by Nicholas Allaire.