Monday, February 27, 2012

letter to Prime Minister Gillard re Screen Australia

The Hon Julia Gillard MP
Prime Minister
Parliament House
Canberra, ACT 2600                                                                                                27th Feb 2012
Dear Prime Minister

It is more than a little absurd that it should be necessary to write to the Prime Minister of Australia to ask a simple question for which there is a not only a simple answer but an obvious one:

Is it appropriate that complaints made about the Chief Operating Officer of a federal government body that invests around $60 million a year in Australian film and television are investigated by the Chief Operating Officer herself?

I would have thought that the answer was a no-brainer. It seems not. Screen Australia’s CEO, Ruth Harley and the Chair of the Screen Australia Board, Glen Boreham, refuse to answer this question and the Hon Simon Crean has shown no interest in doing so either.

A member of the public who asks such a question is left with two choices: resign themselves to the fact that no answer will be forthcoming or keep asking the question until someone, at some level of government, answers it.  If that person is the Prime Minister, so be it.

To choose the latter course exposes the questioner to the accusation that s/he is a ‘vexatious complainant’ whose questions need not be answered because they have been asked so often – a neat and all too familiar tactic used by bureaucrats in the supposedly transparent and accountable era in which we live.  Instead of answering legitimate questions such as those I have been asking for over a year now the person asking them receives a response along the lines of Fiona Cameron’s:

“…please do not continue to waste my time. Neither myself or any other Screen Australia representative will enter into any further correspondence regarding these matters.” 

Much less time would be wasted, of course, if the Fiona Camerons of the bureaucratic world simply answered questions and did not place on file lies that absolve them of responsibility for answering such questions!

It has been suggested to me by various people that calling Chief Operating Officer Fiona Cameron a liar in public is likely to result in my being sued for defamation. I doubt it as it would then be up to Fiona Cameron, (and by inference, Ruth Harley and Glen Boreman) to demonstrate in court that what I have written in any of my letters to them is untrue. If I have lied, if there is one statement in any one of my letters that is not true, (and hence defamatory) then by all means sue me. I deserve to be sued.

Ms Cameron, Ms Harley and Mr Boreham all know that what I write is based in demonstrable fact (as would come out in court) and so will not sue me. They hope, given that Simon Crean could not care less whether or not Fiona Cameron is a liar who investigates complaints made about herself, that I will just give up and that the matter will be forgotten.
In terms of what you have on your plate, as Prime Minister, my complaint here is so trivial that it will not be brought to your attention. And nor should it be. Simon Crean or someone in his office should have dealt with this appropriately a year ago by asking Fiona Cameron to provide evidence in support of assertions she has placed on file that are damaging to my reputation. If she cannot provide evidence (correspondence she refers to my having written) then she should apologize to me and have the false assertions removed from the file.

What is important here, and what someone within your office should, I believe, attend to, is that the lack of accountability and transparency within Screen Australia. It is a lack that seems to be countenanced by Simon Crean. Perhaps he is too busy with more weighty matters to pay any attention to questions such as mine. This would be understandable, but surely someone within his office should be asking the very questions I have asked. If Fiona Cameron is allowed to lie with impunity, if she is the one who investigates any allegations that she is a liar herself and if  the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is unconcerned about this state of affairs, what safeguards are there in place to guarantee that the $60 million or so of Screen Australia investment in Australian film is spent in a way that is untainted by even the suspicion of corruption. I am not suggesting that anyone at Screen Australia is corrupt. Merely that there is no mechanism in place to deal with such corruption if it is Fiona Cameron who is expected to investigate impartially and pass the results of her investigation up the line – to land, eventually, on the desk of Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

From my point of view this matter will only reach a natural and just conclusion when I have received an apology from Ms Cameron and when her lies have been removed from Screen Australia’s files. It must also be officially acknowledged that this dispute began in earnest when Clare Jager and Ross Mathews decided to knock back a documentary submission of mine without either of them (by their own admission) having viewed the ‘promo’ (representing 16 years of filming) that was the centrepiece of my application.

best wishes

James Ricketson
cc the Hon Simon Crean MP

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Screenwriting - art or craft?

Is screenwriting merely a craft or is it, can it also be an art? Whilst a screenplay is primarily the blueprint for a film, can its appeal (the finished film) have more to do with the artistic sensibilities of the screenwriter than his or her skill as a craftsperson? Silly questions whose answers are obvious? Maybe, but worth discussing. Are we, from both an industry and cultural point of view, so obsessed with questions of craft that we devalue the screenwriter’s capacity, at a level much deeper than craft skill, to tap into the zeitgeist, to understand not what audiences want to see (based on recent box office receipts) but what they need to see – even if audiences have no idea that they need to see it. By ‘need’ I mean a story that speaks (again at a deep level) to their desires, hopes and dreams in the present. The ‘present’ for the audience is, of course, a few years down the track for a screenwriter starting work on a screenplay. S/he needs to take the raw material of the present and imagine what the ‘present’ a few years down the track may feel like for the audiences to whom they wish to speak; whom they want to entertain. For instance, any screenwriter starting work on a screenplay today would be wise to take into account that in all likelihood his or her audience in a few years are likely to be in the midst of a serious financial crisis. And what sort of films are audiences in the midst of a ‘depression’ most likely to want to see? Did anyone other than Michel Hazanancius (writer/director) think that there would be an audience for a silent black and white film (“The Artist”) when he started work on it several years ago?

This ability to look forward, to guess, to have one’s finger on the pulse, is one of a screenwriter’s most important skills. Yes, s/he needs to have well-developed craft skills also but these are merely to serve the story that connects, that resonates with an audience. The most perfectly crafted screenplay can be (and often is) boring, predictable, clichéd. Does the desire for such craft perfection (encouraged by film bodies and script gurus alike) obscure from view what it is that really makes a good screenplay work for an audience? Do we admire the Sydney Opera House for the craft skills Joern Utzon demonstrated or for his artistry? Do we admire the skills of a cabinet-maker, a musician, a dancer….any form of artistic expression for the craft skills demonstrated by the creator? Or do we admire the way in which these artists have used their craft skills to create something that is not a clone of what has come before but which induces, in the viewer, the listener, a ‘wow!’ response?

Given that the influx of gurus and experts this past few years to our shores has failed to improve our collective screenwriting skills, the questions implicit here seem to me to be well worth discussing, debating.