Santilla Chingaipe: Being Seen on Screen in the (Post) Colonial Landscape

Santilla Chingaipe has spent many years in Australia behind the camera and in front of it. As a journalist for SBS she did outstanding work. Santilla moved to Australia from Zambia with her family when she was a child. The experience of navigating Australian culture, and what that means, as a migrant led her to a career as a writer and also a filmmaker. With her documentaries Third Culture Kids and Our African Roots, Santilla explored forgotten and erased histories and uplifted marginalised voices.

Santilla currently runs Behind The Screens an incentive that gives people from marginalised backgrounds an opportunity to learn skills that will see them enter the screen industry in Australia.

Santilla will be giving an address at the ACMI Goddess: Power Glamour and Rebellion in conjunction with the exhibition’s ambassador, Geena Davis on Wednesday April 5th.

Nadine Whitney speaks with Santilla to find out about her work, advocacy and how people need to start walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.

Nadine Whitney: Watching Our African Roots on SBS made me realise how much I still had to learn about Australian colonial history. It is based on an upcoming book where you have researched Africans and their history in colonial Australia.

Santilla Chingaipe: The book came before the documentary; it’s just taking longer because it is a massive undertaking contextualising these histories in a bigger global context. I think it’s coming out next year.

NW: You’ve got a lot of work on the horizon. You’ve also got your first narrative feature, Moonchild.

SC: Making my narrative debut next year. Robert Connelly is producing. I’ve been working with Arena for six or seven years. From the first short film I wrote and directed Rob has been really supportive and executive produced most of the things I’ve written and directed, and he’s decided to join me in the trenches and produced my new film which is exciting, but also very overwhelming [laughs].

I’m very excited. It is unlike anything I’ve done before and it’s the first time I’ve felt I can be really creatively free and stretch myself in ways I haven’t been able to before and make something that I think a lot of people wouldn’t expect me to make. Which in itself is the fun of it. It’s a different beast and I like it. I like narrative a lot.

NW: You said that you are doing something that people wouldn’t expect from you. Do you find that you have to often subvert expectations?

SC: I wouldn’t say subvert, but culturally probably where we are it’s one of the reasons why representation is so important. Making sure that there are more people from all kinds of backgrounds so that there’s not an expectation that every creative from a certain background they speak to the issues that have an impact on that community or make works about that.

Sometimes that does tend to happen by default because people want to be seen and heard which is a wonderful thing but then there is the weight of responsibility to have to showcase certain kinds of stories. You do that and sometimes you’re pigeonholed into that space. It creates all kinds of challenges, also opportunities. I think if we can get to a point in the industry where there are more voices then there will be a diverse range of stories. Creators from backgrounds that are historically excluded get to stretch themselves in ways they ordinarily wouldn’t simply because the expectation isn’t that they’re going to tell stories that reflect their cultural background, per se, they’re just telling stories.

NW: This is something you are passionate about with your work with Behind The Screens in Footscray, Melbourne. Can you tell me a little about that?

SC: I run a program partnered with the Footscray Community Art Centre to deliver this program. We started in 2018 and we’ve grown since. We’ve gotten support from funding agencies in the last year or so. VicScreen offered us a grant which helped us to expand the program by tailoring the program to support practitioners from backgrounds that have been historically excluded. So essentially anyone who isn’t a cis white middle class man. Even that isn’t as simple as it seems because people are living with disabilities. So, we essentially are open to people that have experienced historic barriers to the industry. It’s deliberately designed to be free to participants because I realised early on that cost was a big barrier for people.

When we got the grant from VicScreen we structured it into a nine-month program. Before that it used to be a weekend workshop and we opened it up to everyone and gave them access to people in the industry to network and engage and learn.

Then we got a grant we tailored the program to ensure there were opportunities and pathways for them, straight out of the program. We narrowed down the people who could go through the program to twelve participants so we could support them consistently over a nine-month period. They have also built a little community and they are still connected after the program has ended.

That meant that we could structure the program to their needs and by the time they completed the program it was recognised by VicScreen as a capacity building program. So, if they wanted to off and do an attachment, or work on a set as they were now skilled enough to do so. That was really important. We operate in an industry that is very much about who you know. Most jobs aren’t advertised. Because of that certain people are overlooked or not considered. To be able to get people on set so the production managers would have an awareness of them, so the next time they were thinking about crewing they would consider people they had encountered through the program. That was something that we deliberately did when we restructured the program.

It’s been going well. Some of the filmmakers have gone on to do some fantastic stuff. There’s an online series that got support from Screen Australia. Some of them are working on narrative film. They’ve continued to build on the momentum that was started when they came through Behind The Screens.

NW: How does it feel being a storyteller encouraging other people to tell stories?

SC: It’s great! The reason why I’ve always loved stories since I was a kid is that stories are where you find yourself. Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only person that is experiencing something, but you engage with a story and you realise “Oh my gosh! I’m not the only person who has felt like this, or the only person who sees the world this way, or has this cultural experience…” Sometimes afford us the language to be able to name something when you don’t exactly know how to articulate what you are experiencing or have experienced. They can be incredibly empowering, particularly for communities that have been historically excluded. I think being able to see your experience reflected back can be empowering. To be able to support other storytellers to pursue their dreams and their passions to tell even more stories is a wonderfully fulfilling thing. It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done, to advocate for people to empower them to tell their stories and the stories of their communities to wider audiences.

NW: We’re seeing a lot of young, and not so young, creatives getting a chance to do that. Especially in portmanteau works like Here Out West.

SC: Yes! Behind The Screens we have had people who have come through that are much older. One year we had a woman who in her late fifties. She had started her career as a journalist and then she had kids, and life took her down a different path. She had never forgotten dream of telling stories, but she didn’t know where to start because she had such a long stint away from the industry and didn’t know what the networks were. The program was an opportunity to dip back in, reorient herself with where the industry was and to continue to keep going. We get a lot of emerging practitioners but the age one is unique for us because we don’t have a set age.

I think it’s so easy to assume that it’s only when people are younger that it’s when they have the passion for stories. For a lot of people, myself included, you come to filmmaking late in life sometimes. It’s not the thing you start off when you’re young and out of uni. A lot of people don’t go through film school, I didn’t go through film school. I had a different career before I ended up making films and that’s also something that is wonderful – to really advocate for diversity when it comes to age as well. To be able to say that there should be opportunities for people to come into the sector and tell stories even if they have had pre-existing careers.

Lived experience can really be a wonderful and rich environment for storytelling because you’ve lived life and when it comes to tell a story you know exactly what you want to say and sometimes that’s not the case when you’re young. Purely because your level of lived experience isn’t quite as deep as someone who has been around longer.

NW: You will be part of the ACMI Seeing Ourselves on Screen Conference.

SC: A big part of what I’m interested in is conversations about how we move things forward. Going beyond conversations, because we know for a lot of people, we still aren’t seeing the representation that we should be. I know in recent years we’ve seen positive shifts particularly in onscreen representation and that’s an excellent thing, but what I’m interested in is below the line roles and opportunities. Seeing that be made possible. Things like accessibility on sets. When you’ve got crew members living with a disability the work to do is to make film sets more accessible, so people have opportunities to have the jobs.

In recent years we have seen a lot of investment, and rightly so, in above the line roles like writing, directing, producing, and that’s been great, but I’d like to see the whole pipeline of the sector be more inclusive. Whether you’re in development, marketing, pre-production, post, and distribution. And looking at who is making the decisions. Whether that it’s the commissioning editors. All these really important jobs that help shift and change things I think it’s useful to ensure we are creating pathways to ensure that people have the opportunity to occupy these jobs going forward and it’s not just the same people filling those roles.

Laverne Cox Paper Magazine (Yellow Background). Photo: Joshua Kissi, Courtesy Atrbute Marilyn Monroe. Photo: Milton H. Greene © 2022 Joshua Greene. Marilyn Monroe™; Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: The Estate of Marilyn Monroe LLC. © 2007 SAKURAN Film Committee © Moyoco Anno/Kodansha Winnie Harlow – Arms Above Head (Photographer: Albert Sanchez). Courtesy Albert Sanchez, Inc.
Laverne Cox Paper Magazine (Yellow Background). Photo: Joshua Kissi, Courtesy Atrbute Marilyn Monroe. Photo: Milton H. Greene © 2022 Joshua Greene. Marilyn Monroe™; Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: The Estate of Marilyn Monroe LLC. © 2007 SAKURAN Film Committee © Moyoco Anno/Kodansha Winnie Harlow – Arms Above Head (Photographer: Albert Sanchez). Courtesy Albert Sanchez, Inc.

NW: Recognising ageism and disability is incredibly important. One of the things Goddess is highlighting is that for some people at a certain age you “age out” of the industry and what that means certain stories don’t get told and certain lived experiences don’t get told.

People look for things that feel authentic and without representing people from across a large cross-section of society the stories can be lacking. It’s vital that the industry pulls from across a wide pool of creatives.

SC: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s always this sense that stories are universal, but it’s actually really hard to a universal story because, let’s be honest, we’re all coming at life very differently. I think specificity is a wonderful thing. I think that stories are the place where people go to find themselves. For people who have had the entitlement of constantly seeing their experiences reflected back it’s not something that they think about.

I remember growing up and I wasn’t allowed to watch television. My parents used to record cartoons and my brother and I were allowed to watch half an hour of recorded cartoon every week day. But on the weekend, we would go to the library and we’d get tapes of shows. One of the shows I grew up watching was The Cosby Show and one of the things that was interesting about seeing that show growing up in a context that was predominantly white (my family migrated to Perth when I was ten).

I used to watch SBS news and Indira Naidoo would be on and I just remember thinking “Oh my god, that’s someone who looks different.” As a kid that had a big impact on me because I could see myself there. Indira Naidoo is from a South Asian African background but to me, as a kid, I remember holding on to that and it is what led me to working in journalism and working at SBS as well.

There aren’t small things that we are talking about. The Cosby Show for me, and what I loved about it, was it was the first time I saw a Black family on screen represented that way. It reflected my family. We didn’t have a big family, but certainly I could relate to family meals and dinners, and conversations. All these things I wasn’t seeing because if I was seeing a vision of Black people it was generally in a negative context. The Cosby Show was empowering for me as a child growing up. I can’t even imagine what that looks like for all the other intersections and experiences and that’s why it is so important that we keep banging on about this.

We have to stay vigilant because the assumption is that when we see progress that we are there. I think someone was sharing a statistic with me, a GLAAD report, that in the previous year there was a lot of queer representation on screen and more than they’d ever seen before and it was great and then the following year it had regressed because some of the shows got cancelled and the like. I look at that and think as a society we like to rest on our laurels and say “Aren’t we doing these great things? Isn’t it wonderful?” We think because we’ve reached a moment it is going to be a thing forever and I don’t think we can afford to be complacent. There have been so many examples historical examples that have shown us that you can go through a period of really amazing growth and development and then reverse back to the status quo.

I want to see us building on the momentum of good will and people wanting to see the shifts in our industry as an ongoing matter. So that in in twenty- or thirty-years time we aren’t actually having conversations about how do we get greater representation – it just is.

NW: This is something that will be addressed at the conference I imagine. It is also addressed in some of the works coming to the conference like Nina Menkes’ documentary Brainwashed: Sex, Camera, Power which looks at how representation happens and then goes backwards. We can even see that with the most recent awards circuit. It was a historic time for awarding older people and people from different backgrounds, but there was a lack of women and Black creatives being nominated in key categories. There was great diversity on one hand, but less diversity on the other. There seems to be a sense of bodies thinking “Well, we did it last year or the year before, so we don’t have to do it this year.”

SC: Absolutely. What I hope is one of the things that I hope is an outcome of the conference is that we start to see more consistent actions and not just more conversations. The reason why I started Behind The Screens was I just got tired of being programmed on diversity panels. We know that there is a problem, can we actually do something about it? It just got tiring. We get to a point where we either do something about it or we don’t. I wanted to be collaborating with people who reflected the experiences that I have in my community, in my life, in my world. For me there’s so much representation in my own life that I can’t imagine why that is not being reflected on a set. On a set, because you’re spending so much time with people, and it’s intense, you want to have an environment that is made up of people from all walks of life and backgrounds. It’s been so beneficial for me. It enriches the storytelling; it enriches how I look at the world. All of these immense positives that come out of it. I selfishly want that reflected on the sets that I work on. Because on my projects I have some kind of control I can dictate that. That’s not necessarily the case for all the other film sets across the country.

It became “How do you get other people to do this?” My hope is that we just move beyond the conversations because it’s not like we haven’t identified that we have diversity challenges in the sector. My hope is that we can go “Okay, what are we going to do about it?”

NW: To identify a clear action result.

SC: That’s it! The burden can’t be on people from underrepresented communities to be sorting it all out. That’s the frustration that I have. I don’t think that the burden should fall on people who have historically been excluded to then be not only coming up with solutions but to have to be at the forefront of advocacy. This is an issue for everyone. I just hope that post the conference the industry really does step up to shift things in a way that ensures these measures are sustainable and ongoing.

NW: What are you most excited about happening at the conference?

SC: I’m most excited to hear from practitioners who are walking the walk. There’s an incredible young filmmaker Kauthar Abdulalim who tells a lot of stories about the Muslim community in Australia. Her model is so fascinating. I was on a set for series she did for TikTok a while back. Her practices are so inclusive, there was cultural inclusivity, there was religious inclusivity, and to be able to observe how the production accommodated all of this. It was the first time I’d looked at a call sheet and there would be prayer times. And the nuances of how the culture touched people. This was being enforced on set and I thought “Oh my goodness!” it was just an incredible thing to see someone take that upon themselves to feel safe on set, to make other people feel safe on set, but to also ensure that Muslims are being seen not just on camera but on set as well, and that does that mean to make these sorts of accommodations. So, she’s someone who I’m very excited about and learning from her practice is exciting. I’m particularly interested in hearing from people who are actively pushing things forward because there is a lot of talk but not many people are doing the things that need to get done. Kauthar is one of those people, so I’m really looking forward to what she has to say.

NW: It will be magnificent to see such a broad range of people speaking about the industry and coming up with concrete ideas of change.

SC: I think it will be a really good day and it will be empowering uplifting and we will be charged to press on which is always a wonderful thing and I hope none of us will leave feeling despondent but feel fired up to take on the industry.

NW: The Goddess Exhibition is about looking to the future but also reminds us that there have been people who broke the mould and made an impact, and it can be done, and barriers can be broken.

SC: Absolutely.

For readers interested in finding more about Santilla Chingaipe’s work please visit her site. Her documentary Our African Roots is streaming on SBS Australia.

For more information on the Being Seen on Screen conference and the extraordinary range of speakers see the ACMI website.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!