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Screen Diversity, Cultural Appropriation and Writing Responsibly

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

By John Kassab

Diversity or Cultural Appropriation? An Egyptian in a Vietnamese restaurant wearing an Aussie t-shirt (made in China) with an American Jewish Lesbian on the TV saying “…going to say? Sometimes it is hard to” — — Photo: Benn Bennett

In 2016, Lional Shriver’s key note speech titled “Fiction and Identity Politics” at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival sparked controversy about the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’. Shriver, quoting Susan Scafidi, defined this as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Shriver took issue with the notion of “permission” and asked “What stories are implicitly ours to tell?” noting that fiction writing is “a disrespectful vocation by its nature — prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous”. She also dismissed minority voices that complain about their misrepresentations in fiction, noting that accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ prohibit writer’s from doing their job and ultimately limits them from depicting characters from diverse backgrounds.

At the time I disagreed with Shriver’s statements and applauded the festival’s decision not to accept works written from outside an author’s personal cultural experience. As an Australian of Egyptian heritage, I’ve always felt grossly underrepresented in Western media: — depictions of Egyptian, Middle Eastern and African characters were too often framed through a white gaze that is ultimately uninformed, reductive, exoticised, eroticised or punctuated in such a way to land a cheap joke. Representations of myself and people of my cultural experience and history are too often framed as aggressive, violent, incomprehensible, foolish or worse, the victim. Similarly, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTIQA+ community and women have all endured similar tokenism, side-kickery, reductionism and exploitation in the predominantly white male fantasies which, according to Stacy Smith’s recent research from USC, accounts for over 70% of content made in Hollywood.

Of course, I felt that white people had no right to tell ‘our’ stories and the fact that we had limited options to tell our own stories angered me for years. These types of representations ultimately led me to tell stories of what I felt was the “underrepresented diaspora” — but, hypocritically, these stories were never my own (and in view of recent dialogue on the subject, possibility not mine to tell).

For instance, as producer, my films have explored characters such as African-American outlaw bikers in Baltimore in 12 O’Clock Boys (2013: Dir. Lotfy Nathan); illegal immigrant Mexican construction workers in Los Angeles in Debris (2017: Dir. Julio Ramos); a Chinese night shift worker at upmarket British palliative care facility in They Wait for Us (2018: Dirs. George Thomson & Lukas Schrank); and, a lesbian heart broken at her father’s refusal to attend her wedding in Nobody’s Darling (2018: Dir. Robyn Hicks). I also produced an animated short film called Cabbit for Philipino-American artist Greg Sugano in 2012, and directed and produced the web series Renaissance Woman (2015) for comedian Hannah Gadsby.

At no point during this run of projects did I ever question or contemplate the fact that I did not belong to the groups I was representing on screen. Instead, film festivals and audiences have applauded my work, including those from the cultures I helped to depict. As producer, I felt that I had offered my skillset and resources to shine a light on these stories and experiences, with writers and directors who were closer to the subjects’ own lived experiences than I was. I also took pride in that my work employed people, on and off camera, from all sorts of cultural and religious backgrounds, as well as genders and sexualities.

However, if I am to be perfectly honest, in most of the projects listed, the writers and directors I worked with very often did not share the ‘exact’ life experience of the characters depicted at all — even if their were from broadly the same cultures. My collaborators were very often empowered with the same middle-class privileges as me and were, for whatever motivation, wanting to tell stories about the powerless and under represented. What was their motivation? What was my motivation? Was I unwittingly appropriating the cultures of others in my work and, if so, did I do a bad thing?

Recently, I have become acutely aware of the disparity in fiction between subject and storyteller. Now as a writer creating worlds filled with characters who have different cultural, religious, sexual orientations and levels of physical ability from my own, I have been asking myself the same question Shriver posed in her speech: “What stories are implicitly ours to tell?” Or are there stories we need permission to tell?

In seeking answers to these questions, I instinctively found myself rejecting the notion that we should only tell our own stories.

As an outsider to my own cultural heritage who is keenly interested in all peoples and our global society, to only write from my perspective or experience would be creatively claustrophobic and lead to work that is mono-tonal and self-indulgent. I also agree with the many who have argued that such restrictions counter the core values of “free speech”. Most troubling, however, was a feeling that if I adhere to these types of creative restrictions, I would empower predominantly white academics, theorists and critics to impose their guilt, shame and humiliation about their own histories on my work and me.

Like Shriver, this lead me to concerns regarding the notion of “permission”. Who has the authority to grant permission? The popular notion that cultural consultants or cultural elders are some kind of gatekeepers of creative authority is ineffectual or destructive for three main reasons:

Firstly, it considers all ethnic or cultural groups as being homogeneous (Africa is not a country!) and completely disregards the idea of diversity within so-called “diverse” groups. That is, just because someone identifies as being of a certain group, it never gives that person full authority to speak on behalf of every member of that group.

Secondly, in removing the minority voices from direct authorship, the process of using ‘consultants’ continues to position minority voices in support roles where their voices are ultimately filtered and coloured by the (white) author’s lens.

Thirdly, and most curiously, there is tendency for consultants to present themselves and their culture within the framework of a white bias in a bid to be “relatable” or worse still, “employable”. That is, pay us and we will tell you what you want to hear in a way you can digest hearing it. I have been guilty of this crime.

Where my view sharply parts from Shriver’s is her assessment that fiction writing is necessarily “kleptomaniacal and presumptuous”.

“Kleptomaniacal” and “presumptuous” are other words for “taking” and “bad research” and indicative of a colonialist impulse. At its heart, story telling should be about sharing. Further, if you are telling a story that depicts a person or group that you have to make presumptions about, then you probably have not done your due diligence and researched enough, and therefore have no business writing about them.

So perhaps a more useful question than “whether we should write about others” is “how do we write responsibly about others?”

For starters, there is obvious remedy in research and self-reflection. But before you start surveying, watching documentaries, living amongst the group you intend to depict, pouring over microfiche or asking Dr Google anything, ask yourself: why do you want to tell this story? What are you trying to say with these characters? Whose story is it and why must it be told from the perspective you’ve chosen? What does a particular character’s inclusion (or another’s exclusion) or examination reflect about his/her/their culture, history and traditions? What does your framing of that character reflect about you?

Successful examples of fair depictions of underrepresented peoples in Australian film can be seen in the works of Rolf de Heer whose Dance Me To My Song” (1998), co-written with disability rights campaigner Heather Rose; or Ten Canoes (2006) which was co-directed by Peter Djigiri; and, Charlie’s Country (2013) which was co-written by David Gulpilil. In these examples, de Heer partnered meaningfully and shared in the creation of his works with people who lifted the content with the authenticity of their direct lived experience of being from the diaspora presented.

Similarly, Warren Clarke and Que Minh Luu’s TV series The Heights (2019-) made a concerted effort to place diverse representation at the forefront of their creative and employment considerations.

I applaud Screen Australia, Film Victoria and other funding organisations for pushing for some demonstration of diversity in the content of the shows they support. However, an opportunity for inauthentic or shallow depictions of race, culture and gender has presented itself as more productions retrospectively attempt to meet “diversity quotas” in their projects through cynical casting choices. Or worse, this is also demonstrated in black victim/white hero dramas and ‘wog baffooning’ that continue to perpetuate culturally destructive depictions whist being applauded by mostly white people for depicting diversity. (*I’m not calling anyone out, you know who you are). From an employment position, these shows might be seen as tiny steps in the right direction, however a more effective long-term solution would be to follow the lead from Rolf de Heer and “The Heights” by insisting on diversity in creative leadership. That is, to give more filmmakers from diverse backgrounds opportunities to skill-up under the guidance of more seasoned screen practitioners and to share in authorship when depicting the multicultural reality we live in.

Most beneficially to the future of content in this country, this direction would see more diverse storytellers elevate work to a point of relevance to a wider audience who crave authenticity. Just as it has in the UK and US, this cultural capital will equate to financial capital and validate more diverse artists in the eyes of funding bodies, investors, production companies, distributors and broadcasters to tell their stories without the influence and filtration of external biases.

Until then, to prohibit empowered people, white or otherwise, from helping share the stories of others, would be to close the door to many new ideas and progressive depictions of culture (provided they are written responsibly). Detrimentally, from the perspective of diversity in employment, this will ultimately result in a continued culture of exclusion on set and on screen — ironically, an outcome counter to the intentions of proponents of the opposing argument.

John Kassab was a Fellow in the 2019 Cinespace Social Cohesion on Screen Writer's Fellowship, funded by the Victorian Government.

John is a Sound Designer, Producer and Writer with an Egyptian background who is now based in Footscray. His sound projects included the Oscar winning animated short film 'The Lost Thing' and Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning 'Deeper Than Yesterday'. In the past 7 years, John has also produced numerous award winning films in Australia, the UK and the US including the highly acclaimed feature documentary ’12 O’Clock Boys’.

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