TONY BURKE - SPEECH - GRIEVANCE DEBATE - MONDAY, 19 OCTOBER 2015

SPEECH ON THE ARTS

GRIEVANCE DEBATE

MONDAY, 19 OCTOBER 2015

I rise to talk about the importance of being able to tell Australian stories, and I do so, unfortunately, in the context of the funding cuts which have occurred both to the Australia Council and to Screen Australia over the last two years. But I do so in the optimistic context of how important an Australian story can be when told and told well.

Last night, as part of the Greek Film Festival, I attended one of the first screenings of a movie titled Alex & Eve. Alex & Eve has been filmed in the suburbs of Canterbury, Lakemba, Glebe, Haberfield, Homebush, the Rocks, Croydon, Belmore, Auburn and Leichhardt. It has been filmed in the heart of multicultural Sydney, and it tells a multicultural story—a story to which, when they first went for funding to a number of different places, people responded with: 'Well, that story would have no credibility. How could there be a story of a Greek Orthodox young man falling in love with an Islamic woman?' And yet it is a story that should be told. It is a story that characterises much of what we see in Australia and indeed in my part of Sydney. It is a story that some communities will find challenging, but surely the arts are able to do that. It is a story that some in some communities will find challenging, and some people will not like different parts of the film. It is also the case that the story itself tells something as timeless as a love story—something as timeless as a story of two people who love each other and find that the barriers to their love are their family members who love them most.

When we had the audience Q&A at the end of the film last night, someone put up their hand and said, 'Is it possible to enjoy this film if you are neither Greek nor Lebanese?' I think the question could easily be asked: 'Is it possible to enjoy Romeo and Juliet if you are not from Verona?' These stories are timeless and need to be told, but they need to be able to be told in such a way that Australians can look at the characters, can look at the scenes and can look at the streetscapes and realise that that is their home on the screen. We should not only be taken through emotional stories or emotional journeys where the backdrops become various parts of LA. Our own suburbs, our own towns and our own communities can themselves provide the framework and the background to tell stories that are otherwise timeless.

The film itself began as a stage play. I think that it is an important reminder of that lower entry point in terms of cost. Being able to first initiate stories very often begins with live theatre. It allows a playwright to work with actors in a lower cost environment and to go the first stage in telling stories that sometimes end up either on our television screens or, as I saw last night, on our cinema screens. The stage play, by Alex Lykos, started off in community theatre and became a smash-hit play, playing to packed audiences at the Enmore Theatre, and then spawned itself two stage sequels. Alex adapted the stage play, developed a film script and approached a friend of his—and indeed a friend of mine—Bill Kritharas, who formed the production company. The production company sought funding from Screen Australia for script development, and they did receive that assistance. They then engaged a producer, Murray Fahey, and an award-winning director, Peter Andrikidis, who has done a series of works for multicultural arts in Australia. He directed East West 101, Wog Boy 2 and other television productions. They then went out and found funding from private sources, some of which included interactions like the ones that I described the beginning of this speech.

The film takes a look at multicultural Australia and explores cross-cultural relationships in a humorous and witty way and, on many occasions, quite a touching way—aiming, in telling a timeless story, to also do so in a way that breaks down some of the barriers between communities. The original stage play was first performed in Sydney in 2006. Since then, over 35,000 people have seen productions of the play in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. The film is directed by Peter Andrikidis and stars Richard Brancatisano and Andrea Demetriades as star-crossed lovers whose parents forbid them to marry.

As I watched the story's scenes, I saw the streetscapes of Lakemba and Belmore in my electorate and the schoolteacher in Homebush high, as well as the more iconic Sydney scenes—those that are iconic for others; the ones I have mentioned are more iconic for me—of Sydney Harbour and those areas that are better known by people around the world as symbols of Australia.

I worry as we see the allocation for drama for SBS and the ABC continue to be put under pressure and the changes that have been made to the Australia Council and Screen Australia. What do we need to do to ensure that stories like this can always be told? It will always be easy for someone to stand up and ridicule arts funding and point to something else that is not getting funding and say, 'Surely, that's more important.' But we must always remember that at the heart of our country's arts policy is our national character. The arts, possibly more than any other area of policy, define how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.

I was frustrated when some years ago a young actor I know, Sachin Joab, found that he and all the other Indian characters who were in Neighbours were written out of the script. Originally the new producer's plan was that they were going home to India. The actors had to go back to the scriptwriters and say, 'Haven't you understood what's happening in the script here? Australia is the homes for these characters.'

In many ways, over the years, there have been some Australian stories that we have been good at telling on screen and in theatre. But the story of multicultural Australia remains undertold. I look at some of the challenges that we have with community engagement and some of the issues that ministers on both sides of politics have grappled with over the years on how best to engage with communities whom we feel might not be engaging with well enough. Part of that engagement is the validation of letting people know that their story is part of the Australian story and their character is part of the national character.

The film Alex and Eve does that. It is part of that story. I am not pretending for a minute it in any way characterises the Greek community or the Islamic Lebanese community. But what it does is allow an eternal story to be told against a background that people find familiar. We need more of this, not less. Every time one of these stories is told, some people will look at it and say, 'But that's not representative of us', and they will be right. No individual story ever is or could be. But the absence of multicultural Australia from our stories is not representative of this nation—and that is a challenge we continue to have to deal with.

I congratulate everybody involved in the film and, in particular, the screening I went to last night, which was organised by the Greek orthodox community for the Greek Orthodox festival—Harry Danalis, Nia Karteris and everyone involved with that particular film.

As part of the grievance debate, I plead to the government and everybody involved in policy making: the arts will always be an easy political tabloid hit. There will always be an argument to say, 'Let's cut it there.' Funding for the arts will always be an example of funding that is harder to justify. But the truth is that we make these cuts at our peril. If there is anything that has the capacity to unify our national character and let people know that their story and their journey matters to this country, it is the simplicity of us making sure—hopefully, in years to come, again on a bipartisan basis—that these stories are told. Part of the role of the Australian government is to help them be told.