Complaints about racism increasing, Screen Australia’s top Indigenous executive says

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Bigotry in film and TV industry will not disappear of its own accord, Penny Smallacombe says in wake of Neighbours allegations

Penny Smallacombe speaks to the media
Screen Australia’s Penny Smallacombe: ‘We can’t just sit back and expect racism to just disappear.’ Photograph: Hanna Lassen/WireImage
Screen Australia’s Penny Smallacombe: ‘We can’t just sit back and expect racism to just disappear.’ Photograph: Hanna Lassen/WireImage
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Last modified on Wed 7 Apr 2021 21.27 EDT

The agency responsible for bringing to the screen some of Australia’s most significant Indigenous projects says complaints of racist and discriminatory behaviour in the film and television industry have risen in the past two years.

Penny Smallacombe, the head of Screen Australia’s Indigenous department, which has overseen projects such as the ABC series Mystery Road and Total Control, told Australia that complaints from First Nations people working in the industry had risen significantly during her six-year tenure, as had complaints from other marginalised cultural groups.

Smallacombe, a Maramanindji woman from the Northern Territory, declined to comment specifically on the Indigenous actor Shareena Clanton’s allegations of racism and sexism on the Neighbours’ set or FremantleMedia’s handling of her complaints. Screen Australia does not fund the long-running series, which is now in its 35th year.

“I don’t have any intimate knowledge of what goes on there … but I think, generally speaking, I’m personally receiving more calls where there has been issues on set or in writers’ rooms or generally across the screen industry, and they’re mostly coming from First Nations people or people from other under-represented groups,” she said.

Clanton was the target of further racial slurs on social media on Wednesday after her Instagram post alleging, among other things, that a Neighbours actor used the n-word on more than one occasion, and that an actor of colour had been described as a “lil’ monkey”.

The television series’ production house, FremantleMedia, has not responded to Australia’s request for comment to date but in a statement released late on Tuesday acknowledged that there had been “significant and lengthy discussions” with Clanton in the past two months.

“We will continue to work with all cast and crew to ensure Neighbours continues to be a fully inclusive environment,” the statement said.

Smallacombe said she had reached out to Clanton on Tuesday “to see if she was OK”.

While the increased presence of First Nations people in the industry could account for some of this rise in the number of complaints, along with increased awareness amid the Black Lives Matter movement, it did not fully explain the trend, she said.

“The industry as a whole, understands the need for greater inclusion, diversity, equity on screen … and I think production companies are possibly rushing to diversify onscreen representation through the stories that they tell, and in doing so, aren’t thinking about the foundations that they need to build in order to make it a culturally safe working environment,” she said.

“I think certainly that there is a lot of work to be done in this area … we can’t just sit back and expect racism to just disappear out of the industry. We need drivers across the board to make sure that these kinds of behaviours aren’t acceptable ways of working.”

Penny Smallacombe speaks during a panel discussion at the Power of Inclusion Summit in Auckland in 2019
Penny Smallacombe speaks during a panel discussion at the Power of Inclusion Summit in Auckland in 2019. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images for New Zealand Film Commission

Smallacombe said Screen Australia was working on a new equity and anti-racism strategy, and was about to announce the appointment of an inclusion manager to implement the strategy.

The peak film funding body was also considering commissioning a second Seeing Ourselves report, she said, which would expand on an earlier report to include analyses of cultural diversity among all people operating in the film and television industry, not just hose working front of camera.

The 2016 report analysed 1,961 main characters from 199 Australian TV dramas broadcast on public, commercial free-to-air and subscription television between 2011 and 2015, and the cultural backgrounds of the 988 actors who portrayed the characters on screen.

The study found that while Indigenous Australians were well represented onscreen compared with their proportion of the population, people from non-European backgrounds such as Asian, African or Middle Eastern, and people with disabilities, were significantly under-represented.

More than a third of the programs analysed had main casts consisting entirely of characters from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds.

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