25 Feb 2019 | BY Shelley Lee - @ShelleyLee_
It’s the regrettable truth: historically the folks who determine who snares an Oscar, with this year’s ceremony coming up on February 24, are predominantly white and male. The influential and inspirational Australian filmmaker Rachel Perkins is neither of these things and this year she joins the Oscar judges for the first time as part of a new, more diverse group of members casting those Academy Award ballots.
Rachel Perkins appears to absorb everything happening in the room around her – a handy trait for a documentarian and director – and this room is bustling.
We’re at a Screen Australia celebration of 25 years of the Indigenous Department at Carriageworks in Sydney, and the voices of a crowd boasting the likes of Leah Purcell, Warwick Thornton (another newly tapped Academy member) and Shari Sebbens are reverberating off the walls around us.
“It’s a moment of great pride” Perkins says of the anniversary milestone. “In the Indigenous world a lot of the press is negative and this [celebrates] the great achievement of filmmakers and television and actors. It’s great to have a positive thing to talk about in Indigenous Australia.”
Perkins and peers celebrating 25 years of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department. Standing L-R: Ivan Sen, Shari Sebbens, Warwick Thornton, Aaron Fa’Aoso, Hunter Page-Lochard Seated L-R: Tasia Zalar, Penny Smallacombe, Elaine Crombie, Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Rachel Perkins, Dylan River Photo credit: Daniel Boud for Screen Australia
She smiles with a pride that isn’t just for her culture (Perkins is an Arrernte/Kalkadoon woman), but also for the individuals she’s glancing around at, most of whom she’s either worked with or mentored over her three decade long career.
With feature films Bran Nue Dae, Radiance, One Night Moon and most recently Jasper Jones, and the Logie Award-winning telemovie Mabo, Logie and AACTA award-winning Redfern Now and acclaimed series Mystery Road, all under her belt Perkins’ passion is sharing Aboriginal stories and characters with the world.
She’s one of several Australians the 928 invited into the Oscars fold in 2018 boosting the voting pool to around 8200 members. The new additions arrive as the 91-year-old Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attempts to address the fallout of two equality movements stealing the limelight in recent years.
In 2015 #OscarsSoWhite first called out the all-white acting nominees and late 2017 #MeToo began mass-exposing a shameful underbelly of alleged abuse and mistreatment of women in Hollywood. The Academy is currently three years into an initiative to double the number of female and minority representatives by 2020 and, according to The New York Times, membership in 2019 is 69 per cent male and 82 per cent white.
Perkins is happy to be a part of this shift to a more diverse Oscars, but wants her spot secured by her skills not her skin colour “I hope that we earn our place in that cohort of voters on our merits, that it’s not just about race” adding, “We need to provide opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds, but those people need to deliver the quality and have the talent to deserve those opportunities.”
Compared to the broader Australian screen industry, the Indigenous sector has been kicking goals when it comes to telling female-driven stories and utilising talented female content-makers. Perkins’ first screen job was as a trainee at the Freda Glynn co-founded Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Group of Companies (CAAMA).
It was a free flight to Alice Springs (where she she wanted to go to reconnect with the country and culture of her Grandmother’s family) the 18-year-old Canberra-raised daughter of Aboriginal rights activist Charlie Perkins and his wife Eileen was after, and to get it she applied to be a TV reporter. She didn’t get (or want) the on-air gig, but did score a TV traineeship, allowing to learn screen craft alongside the likes of Thornton.
For someone who never chased a film career, Perkins has carved an outstanding one as a writer and producer as well as director. Only four years after accepting the traineeship she co-founded production company Blackfella Films in 1992. “Women have led in our world quite strongly, and I’m really proud to be a part of that movement” she tells The FIERCE.
Perkins has just returned from consultations in Kununurra in far north Western Australia’s far north when we speak. She’s also is working on an SBS documentary series called First Wars and upcoming ABC political drama series Black B*tch, starring Rachel Griffiths and Deborah Mailman, which has been flagged for international distribution.
“We’re busy, which is fantastic,” she says as we wrap up our chat and she prepares to return to the celebrations. “We have government support through Screen Australia to make Indigenous content that’s really exceptional, very few countries in the world have that. We can tell these great Australian stories and get them out to the world – I feel very lucky”.
For Australian viewers the Oscars will air Monday, February 25 from midday AEDT on Channel 9, with an encore screening at 7.30pm on GEM.
Foxtel’s channel E! will also air the Oscars red carpet from 9.30am AEDT.
Find out more about the 25th anniversary of the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia