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Loud & Clear: Interview with Amie Batalibasi

Insights from an inspiring female filmmaker.

Written by Naomi Ball - Producer & Director at Momentary

Today is International Women’s Day, a day of celebration and solidarity. As a female filmmaker, never before has the call to arms been so strong as in the past year. The exploitation exposed by the #MeToo movement reignited the conversation about gender inequality in all industries, and has shown it's time for female voices to be heard.

I’ve had the privilege of working with Amie Batalibasi, an Australian Solomon Islander writer, director and producer based in Melbourne, known for films that expose injustice and put diversity on screen. Hers is a voice that rings so true, it’s hard not to sit up and take notice.

Her work has been shown at film festivals in Australia and around the world, picking up awards along the way. She was recently selected to attend the Berlinale Talents Summit 2018 as part of the Berlinale International Film Festival in Germany, and is the 2017 recipient of the Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Film Program’s Merata Mita Fellowship.

We caught up to talk about her work and the role that film has in making a social impact.

Amie Balanasi, momentary, social impact, video, filmmaking

You’ve just returned from Berlinale, what was the highlight for you?

The thing I found really inspiring was being able to hear from established filmmakers through the discussion panels, Q&A sessions - it's always a big learning for me to be able to hear a filmmaker talk about process, deconstruct a scene and get into the specifics of their filmmaking practice. I really loved the sessions that got specific about a topic or theme like this one about death on screen: "Dead or a Life? Passing Away on Screen" with filmmakers Kamila Andini (Seen and Unseen) and Lucile Hazdihalilovic.

What role do you think film and other media has to play in creating social change?

For me, creativity has always been related to some bigger notion or community connection. When I did my undergrad in photography in Brisbane in 2001, even then, I wasn't satisfied with just hanging my photos on a gallery wall. I ventured out into the public domain and started doing street art installations and public art. I'm always interested in creating discussion and interacting with audiences. And so filmmaking was a natural progression for me.

I think the power that film has is to provoke thought, which leads to discussion and potentially action which can affect change. And social media now plays a big part in the effect that films can have on people - it's a way to keep engaging with an audience, keep the conversations going after the film screening and rally a community around a film project with a social cause.

Was there a moment that first inspired you to use film and storytelling as a way to make social change?

I think I've always tried to link my creative practice with a greater cause because it gives me purpose and drive to keep going. I tend to call my films, 'projects' because they often involve a whole community of people.

The short documentary I made in my family's village in the Solomon Islands in 2010 was an 11 minute film in which many of my uncles and aunties talked about how the rising sea levels were affecting their lives. The short played at film festivals around the world and got the attention of people who ended up helping us to raise funds for our community development projects. This is where I first saw the power of sharing stories through film. Making Tide of Change literally translated to tangible and life changing outcomes for my village - small garden workshops, disaster management training, sanitation projects.

A more recent short film Blackbird, is a narrative short that delves into Australia's sugar slave history. It's an historical drama set in the late 1800s and uncovers a history that many Australians aren't aware of. From 1863 - 1904 approximately 60, 000 Pacific Islanders were 'blackbirded' or taken (often by kidnapping and coercion) to work in Australia's sugar plantations. I wanted to make the film to help create awareness around a history that has largely been forgotten.

Credit: Mark Morris (Blackbird)

There is a lot of pain and tragedy associated with this time in Australia's history, some of my own ancestors were blackbirded, and the ripple effect that this dark part of our history has had throughout the Pacific on our peoples, our identities and cultures is profound. So this film stands to acknowledge and recognise my own ancestors, and the struggle that Australian South Sea Islanders had to face in this country due to such an oppressive labour system.

I've had a lot of feedback online and via our Facebook page from people who didn't know about the history, people whose ancestors were kidnapped, teachers who want to show the film to their students - it's created a dialogue and I think that's empowering. There is amazing work that so many Australian South Sea Islander groups are already doing in community, and I hope our film Blackbird is contributing to that.

You started in documentary, but in the last few years have been working on narrative projects. Why did you decide to move into fiction?

I think I was looking for a change and a new way to collaborate. Also, I'm a really bossy person and actors will basically do anything you say! Kidding! I think narrative film can potentially have greater audiences but also there's an exciting place in between documentary and narrative. I like working with small crews, non-actors, low budgets - so I'm basically making narrative films with my documentary sensibilities.

It’s no secret that in the Australian film industry, women are underrepresented in all roles from producing to directing to writing, and as actors, they are often paid less than their male counterparts.

What do you think the Australian industry is doing well to address this, and what do you think could be done better?

The truth is that I feel like I exist very much outside of the Australian film industry. I've been making films for 10 years now but I've never had a state or federal film body fund a project, and at the moment I'm making independent films. I don't really fit the norms of our industry. I'm a woman of colour director - and there aren't a whole lot of us in the country.

I think we need to support our emerging filmmaking sector - it's swiftly being defunded, our screen resource organisations are disappearing and there is a lack of opportunities. We need to properly nurture the talent that is coming out of our film schools (which is an equal numbers of males and females). Canada has this amazing Micro Budget Production Program - I'd love to have something like this because it's there to cater for the emerging indie sector.

Here, we've recently seen support for women driven projects but personally I haven't been eligible to apply as our system has barriers in terms of eligibility criteria. But I'd like to see funding in particular that supports culturally diverse actors and filmmakers because it's clear that we need greater representation in this area

In the meantime, I've just got to keep making films and supporting my fellow filmmakers. And I'm lucky and very grateful to have had some international recognition, the Sundance Merata Mita Fellowship and Berlinale Talents, to pull me up through the cracks.

There is also another layer of underrepresentation that I’ve heard you speak passionately about - the underrepresentation of indigenous voices and people of colour.

What do you think needs to change in our industry to address this?

Much like what I've said above. I think it's about recognition of this lack of diversity - and then backing that up with support, resources and funds that specifically target that group of people. Any change will be super slow without this.

Through the Merata Mita Fellowship and the Maoriland Film Festival’s Native Slam project you’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with other indigenous filmmakers.

What difference has that made to your own practice?

It's been amazing to feel connected to an international community of indigenous filmmakers. There's something really grounding about seeing a familiar face at a film festival and being able to sit down and chat with another indigenous filmmaker. There's so much respect and solidarity within this community and it's a really powerful thing. #NativeFilm :)

Are you currently working on any projects?

I'm currently developing Blackbird into a feature film. And I'm aiming to make some short films with four culturally diverse emerging writer/ directors this year - we don't have any funding to do it, but they came to me because they didn't know where else to go to get their films made. Their voices need to be heard, so I'm going to help them.

You can view Amie’s video art piece Lit at VU at MetroWest (Footscray) until 23 March as part of Victoria University’s Come Together International Women’s Day exhibition. Lit explores the lack of representation of women of colour in Australian media.

Naomi Ball is a Producer and Director at Momentary. She began her career in communications, working for not-for-profits, before pursuing narrative and documentary filmmaking with a focus on social impact films.

If you are working to make the world a better place, we would love to hear from you!

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