MELBOURNE WEBFEST KEYNOTE ADDRESS, 2018

MELBOURNE WEBFEST KEYNOTE ADDRESS 2018 by Julie Kalceff

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging and the Elders from other communities who may be here today. 

Welcome everyone. Thank you for coming tonight and supporting Melbourne WebFest. I’ve been involved with the festival for the past three years with our series Starting From Now. Steinar and the Melbourne WebFest team have always shown us, and the Australian web series community, a great deal of support. So, it’s both an honour and a privilege to stand up here tonight and deliver the keynote address for this year’s festival. 

Given this is a Web FEST and the next 3 days are a celebration of online series I thought I’d focus on what I’ve found to be the positives of making a web series and the opportunities that online opens up to us as creatives.

I’ll try not to keep you too long. I have an aversion to long speeches that goes back to my high school days and annual awards nights. I went to an all girl Catholic school and the school principal, Sr. Ann-Marie, loved to give a speech. There were some pretty feisty old nuns at that school – Sr. Theophane, Sr. Theopolos, Sr. Anunciata – but Sr. Ann-Marie was the Principal. It seems you can’t rise to the top job, even at an all girls’ Catholic school, without an Anglo sounding name.

Each year we’d take bets on how long Sr. Ann-Marie would talk for in her opening speech on awards night. Her longest, while I was at the school, was 54 minutes. 54 minutes! This was just the opening speech. She went on for so long that people started leaving before the night had even begun. I doubt even God was listening by the 40 minute mark.

So, I won’t do a Sr. Ann-Marie but what I will do is give you my top 4 reasons why web series are awesome!

Number 1 – You Can Tell the Stories YOU Want to Tell i.e. Bypass the Gatekeepers

I didn’t come out until I was 26. As you know, I went to an all-girl Catholic school, which, by the way, isn’t the hot-bed of lesbian activity some people would have you believe. I guess it didn’t help that I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney - very close-minded, racist and homophobic – and that was just me.

So, I didn’t come out until I was 26. It took me two degrees, multiple trips overseas, a string of failed relationships, and a bucket load of self-loathing to realise who I was. When I did come out, my parents weren’t overly thrilled but, to their credit, didn’t turn their backs on me or shut me out of their lives, which happens to a lot of people. My sister said she knew. No surprise, in hindsight, but I didn’t always look like this, the stereotypical lesbian that stands before you today, but apparently I dressed like it. My sister said she first suspected when we were teenagers. She went into my room to borrow some clothes and there was nothing she wanted to wear. This, for her, was the moment of revelation she was only too happy to share with me at 26 but not 10 years earlier. Not only did she manage to make my coming out about her, she also came out of my closet before I did.

I didn’t know any lesbians growing up. I mean, I’m sure I did but I didn’t know it at the time. The only lesbian I even knew of was tennis great Martina Navratilova. The only comments I ever heard about gays and lesbians were abusive and derogatory. If there had been just one positive portrayal of a lesbian on screen I have no doubt it would have had a profound effect on how I saw myself. It would have helped me work out who I was a lot earlier and it would have saved me years of confusion and internalized homophobia. I don’t know if I would have come out earlier but at the very least, it would have made me feel less alone.

Starting From Now was the story I really wanted to tell – a story about four female protagonists who are all a bit messed up but not because they’re lesbians. For them, being a lesbian isn’t a death sentence or a source of angst, it’s just part of who they are.

I had no hope of getting Starting From Now up as a TV series. I probably could have scraped the money together, changed the story and made it as a low-budget feature, but nowhere near as many people would have seen it. This was the story I wanted to tell and I wanted it to be accessible and freely available because that’s what I needed when I was growing up.  

Number 2 – You Can Tell the Stories YOU Want to Tell Relatively Cheaply

With a web series you have the potential to reach a large audience with a show made for a relatively small budget. The budget for Starting From Now Season 1 was $6000. Season 2 was $4000. Season 2 was less because we had some non-alcoholic red wine left over from the first season, which was a considerable part of our budget. If you’ve seen the show you might have noticed the characters drink a lot. I didn’t actually realise how much until I sat down to write an episode of children’s television last year and found myself staring at a blank page thinking ‘if they can’t drink, take drugs, or have sex, what are they supposed to do for half an hour?’

People watch web series because they’re looking for something they won’t find in mainstream media, because they’re tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. They’re looking for authentic voices, diverse characters and stories told with honesty, integrity and heart. You don’t need a big budget to do this, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t help.

My producing partner on Starting From Now, and one of the stars of the series, Rosie Lourde, is here tonight. After making 3 seasons where no-one had been paid and we had to beg, borrow and beg some more to get each season off the ground and on the net, Rosie and I decided we’d only continue if we were able to secure funding. And we did, eventually. It was a long process but we succeeded in attaching corporate and community partnerships, and funding from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. It was one of the first series starring and created by women to be funded through Screen Australia’s Multiplatform Fund and one of the first dramas. Even then, our budget was low compared to more traditional mediums, but it was substantially more than we’d been used to.

With the money, though, not surprisingly, came accountability. We were still able to tell the story we wanted to tell but it ended up being in a way we hadn’t originally planned to tell it. And this is the trade off, in any form of the arts – money versus freedom. This conflict is becoming more and more relevant in the online space.

As an increasing number of cashed up players and platforms emerge there are more options for online creators, there are more opportunities to create sustainable businesses and, god forbid, for us to be paid for what we do. But, inevitably, there’s also a loss of freedom and as online content starts to look more and more like traditional film and television, the question is no longer can you make a living from creating online content, the question is, can you make a living from creating online content and still tell the stories you want to tell?

The Number 3 Reason Why Web Series Are Awesome – You Get to be Part of a Community of Creators

The first web series festival I attended was this one, Melbourne WebFest, in 2015 and the thing I remember most about it, was how friendly, open and generous everyone was.

As independent filmmakers it often feels like we’re working in isolation and that every day we’re up against it, struggling to meet deadlines, to get our content off the ground, to secure funding, to pay the rent …

This weekend is an opportunity to spend time with people who understand what it’s like, it’s a chance to share tips, experiences, insights, bottles of wine, and jugs of beer.

Every time you go to a web series festival, no matter where it is in the world, there is always a strong, supportive and welcoming Australian contingent. Which is indicative, not only of the camaraderie amongst creators but of the breadth, depth and quality of the online content we create. Every time a festival announces their official selections you can bet there are going to be a large number of series from Australia. We consistently rank highly in the Web Series World Cup and you just have to look at the quality of the series screening over the next couple of days to know we’re doing something right.    

This is, no doubt, a result of Screen Australia and state funding bodies supporting online content creators but it’s also a result of people who’ve done the ground work, people like Enzo Tedeschi who has a hand in I think, three of the series in competition this year, and who has been working and innovating in this space, forging new pathways for creators and sharing his knowledge and experience, for a very long time.

Unlike some other sectors of the screen industry, there is a lack of hierarchy and pretension amongst web series creators. I think it has a lot to do with the relative newness of this space and the fact that it’s constantly changing. As this sector continues to grow and as online content becomes more commercialized, let’s not forget to keep sharing information, supporting each other, and keeping the space as accessible as possible. This is our chance to do things differently to the rest of the industry.

And last, but certainly not least, Number 4 – You Have an Opportunity to Connect With and Build an Audience  

I could do a Sr. Ann-Marie here and talk for 54 minutes about the importance of not only knowing who your audience is, but engaging with them and building a community around your series. But I’ll spare you the lecture.

I will say though, that one of the best and most rewarding aspects of creating online content is the direct access you have to your audience and the immediacy of this relationship. This was something we learnt very early on with Starting From Now. I was worried about how the series would be received and how brutal the feedback might be. It’s very public, it’s often anonymous, and you’re putting yourself and your series out there like a lamb to the slaughter. But what I thought would be a negative actually turned out to be a positive.

How often, as a filmmaker, do you know exactly what your audience is thinking? And as scary as this might be, this information is invaluable. You know what your audience is responding to and what they’re engaging with. You want them to care so deeply about these characters and what they’re going through that they have an emotional response, no matter what that response might be. One of my favourite comments still to this day is from the final episode of Season 1 and simply states – “Dear Steph, you’re a slut.” It didn’t take long for us to work out which members of our audience had been cheated on.

The fact that we made 5 seasons of Starting From Now meant we were able to build an audience and a community over time. This was largely due to our incredible cast who not only brought life, dimension and nuance to the characters, they gave a great deal of themselves in engaging with the audience. We didn’t have a marketing or a publicity budget. We had a core group of actors who generously responded to comments with compassion and sensitivity.

I don’t think we realized how much the show would mean to people who, like me, needed some form of representation in order for them to feel less alone. 

Here’s one of the messages we received from an audience member:

“I feel like I’ve been waiting nearly my whole life for this show. I grew up in a tiny town, and knew I was different from a tiny age, but had nothing to compare to and no one to talk to – because who could/would understand my feelings? I CRAVED characters that I could relate to, and who wouldn’t die as soon as they fell in love and were happy, and I looked for them – in books and on TV and in film. I didn’t find them very often, but when I did – I was in heaven. Three and a half years ago, my world shattered and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to stitch myself back together, or if I even wanted to. I was swallowed whole by grief, and nothing made sense anymore. I didn’t think it was possible to pick up the pieces of my broken heart and stitch them back together. It was at this point that I stumbled across Starting From Now on YouTube. I DEVOURED the first 2 seasons right then and there, and then re-watched them again and again. Finally, there were characters I could relate to, and who I felt I knew. ALL the feelings that grief took came back in full force as I watched all of you work your magic on screen, and then I connected with the other fans on social media, and that has made all the difference to me – to find friends who are accepting and kind and who have the same crazy love for the show as I do. It’s also been a highlight to connect with all of you on social media. Every “like” and retweet, and replies to tweets and Instagram just make my fan girl heart blow up. Thank you for interacting. Thank you for saving me. Thank you for helping me find my way back – for providing solace and comfort when not much else could. For bringing me back to life – and igniting my imagination and desire to create. I can’t wait to see what’s next. I’m forever along for the ride.”


Making Starting From Now and everything that’s come with it has changed me. I’m a different person now than when we had our first cast read-through in my backyard in August, 2013. The person who I was then wouldn’t be able to stand up in front of you tonight. Making a web series has allowed me to tell the stories I want to tell, and do so relatively cheaply, it’s opened doors for me in the industry, enabled me to be part of a community of creators, and it’s allowed me to connect with and build an audience. But above all, it’s helped me learn more about who I am and it’s given me the opportunity to find my voice.

The great American author and poet Maya Angelou wrote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

The online space is in flux. Web series have changed considerably from when we began shooting Starting From Now. The more it changes, the more opportunities arise and with them, new challenges. Whatever happens in this space let’s not forget that we have a very powerful tool in our hands. Let’s continue to tell the stories we want to tell and the stories we want to see, to take risks, build communities, start conversations, and change lives.

Thank you. Enjoy the festival.

 

REPRESENTATION MATTERS

It’s been just over a week since FIRST DAY premiered on ABC ME on Wednesday 11 October and was simultaneously released on ABC iView. While it’s too early for official aggregated ratings, there was a great deal of buzz leading into the release and the feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive.

While there were inevitably some who argued that a show about a transgender girl was inappropriate programming for the ABC (and I’m putting that nicely given the majority of the negative comments didn’t even make logical sense and were clearly made by people who hadn’t watched the show), there was an incredible amount of support from the transgender and LGBTQIA+ community and the wider community as a whole. Here are some of the comments from those who watched FIRST DAY:

Just watched 'First Day' and was so overjoyed to see such a positive representation of what a day in the life of a transgender young person could look like! Will be watching it again with my children tomorrow, please please turn this into a series.

Watched First Day, a small 20min film on ABC Me/iView. Fantastic, thank you. Not enough words. ❤ This was the most amazing viewing. Thank you for broadcasting such wonderful content. Will this be picked up as a series? How can we get this to be an ongoing series?!? This is the kind of fabulous content our world needs right now. Xx.

I've just watched this short film and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's a masterpiece in empathy and how you can use a piece of art to help people think differently about someone or something.

I think it's an incredibly powerful story and I'm so grateful for this opportunity to spend a moment seeing life through Hannah's eyes.

As a Trans woman myself this beautiful bright young actress is absolutely the most remarkable young person I've heard in years ❤ My heart is warm and my soul is alive seeing this.

What a brilliant concept! Not a single show like it around. 100% needs to be made into a regular series. Thanks ABCme. This is going to be such a positive important show.

More please! Well made, interesting and inclusive - so good to see broader representation of our kids. Make this a series asap!!

Thankyou abc! This made me almost cry. I have a 9 yr old m to f trans daughter and the idea of going to high school scares us both. I loved so much how this was done!

Absolutely loved this! Would be amazing to see this made as a series so that other children just like this character are able to see a representation of others like them which we currently don't have in Australia. Well done Evie and well done abcme.

It feels indulgent to include these comments here and it’s not something I would normally do, but as I was reading them I was reminded of the importance of representation on screen and why representation matters now more than ever.

When we don’t see ourselves and people like us reflected in the media it affects the way we feel about ourselves and the way we see the world. The message is that we’re invisible, that we don’t count, or worse still, there’s something wrong with us. We begin to wonder about our place in society and if we’re valued as a person.

Stories shape the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves. The Geena Davis Institute has conducted extensive research into the representation of women and girls on screen in the belief that “if she can see it, she can be it”. But the importance of representation goes beyond that for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, people of colour, and those of varied abilities. For many it is a lifeline. It helps our world to open up and reminds us we’re not alone. For LGBTQIA+ people in particular, seeing someone like them represented on screen can help make sense of how they’re feeling. It can give them the vocabulary and the impetus they need to start the conversation they’ve been too afraid to have.

Of course, the type of representation matters. If a character is merely defined by their ‘otherness’ and is used solely as a plot device, it can be more damaging than helpful. We need representation of complex characters who are three-dimensional human beings and being transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, a person of colour, someone of varied ability, or god forbid, a woman, is only one aspect of the character and not their defining feature. This not only benefits those finally seeing themselves represented, but also creates empathy within the wider audience.

There is also an unequivocal demand for more varied content and greater diversity of stories and characters on screen. This is why more people are accessing content online where traditional gatekeepers have been abolished and a wider variety of stories are being told. In an industry that has always been more show business than art, it makes sense financially to tell more diverse stories. The industry is changing, but the change is slow and a void remains waiting to be filled.

Stories are powerful and have the potential to create change - now more than ever.

In the lead up to the release of FIRST DAY and in the time that followed, a number of people commented on how much it meant to them to see a show like this on the ABC, our national broadcaster. While current technology means we can scour the internet and happen across someone like us, the fact remains that we shouldn’t have to. Yes, things are changing, but this change needs to happen more quickly. Representation matters and it matters across all forms of media. We all deserve to see ourselves reflected back at us, and at others, in mainstream as well as online content. The power of representation and the potential it offers for change means it’s too important to be left to chance.

By Julie Kalceff

 

 PHOTO CREDIT: NICK PROKOP PHOTOGRAPHY

PHOTO CREDIT: NICK PROKOP PHOTOGRAPHY

AUTHENTIC CASTING MATTERS

On Wednesday, 11 October at 7:15pm a stand-alone TV episode I wrote and directed, called FIRST DAY, will be broadcast on ABC ME. FIRST DAY is about Hannah, a 12 year-old transgender girl who’s starting high school. Having presented as male at primary school, it’s the first day she’ll wear a girl’s school uniform and go by her chosen name instead of the boy’s name she was given at birth. ABC ME is ABC TV’s dedicated children’s channel. FIRST DAY was commissioned through an ABC and Screen Australia joint initiative to celebrate the International Day of the Girl. The brief was to create a 20-minute stand-alone TV episode aimed at 8-12 year olds.

There is much to unpack in that paragraph and unpack it I will over the coming weeks, but today, I want to talk about the casting process. After hearing that FIRST DAY had been selected, Kirsty Stark, producer, and I, had our first meeting with the ABC. They were not only extremely enthusiastic and supportive of the project but they said they’d like us to try and cast a transgender girl in the lead. This had been our intention, but we weren’t expecting such outright support from the ABC. To be honest, I was still surprised they’d commissioned the project in the first place. 

After the initial euphoria wore off Kirsty and I had a reality check – yes, we wanted to cast a transgender girl in the role but the lead character of Hannah is in every scene. The success of the film hinges on her performance. What are the odds of us finding a transgender girl who has the courage to be part of this film, who can not only act, but who can carry the weight of this incredibly demanding role on her 12 year-old shoulders? Yes, we believe in authentic casting but we wondered, in this case, if it was even possible.

One thing became apparent over the coming weeks – if you think it’s impossible to cast authentically, you’re not looking hard enough.

The casting call Kirsty posted on her production company’s Facebook page, Epic Films, was shared over 370 times. We had 12 girls apply for the role. We had no money for casting, we had very limited resources, but we had 12 girls apply for a role we weren’t sure we’d be able to fill. Every girl that applied was brave, articulate and inspiring. They were each at different stages of their journey and they all have incredible futures ahead of them. We chose our Hannah from that 12.

Evie Macdonald is a 12 year-old girl from Melbourne. This was her first acting role and she nailed it! Without exception, everyone who was on set, who worked on the film in post-production, or who watched the film at any stage during completion commented on how incredible Evie’s performance is. We got lucky, you could say. We struck gold. But if we hadn’t tried, if we’d sat back and thought it was too hard, if we didn’t have the backing of the ABC, we never would have found Evie.

As far as I'm aware, it's the first time a transgender actor has been cast in the lead role of an Australian television episode. The fact that this will be screened on ABC ME and has been commissioned by the ABC and Screen Australia for children's television is especially groundbreaking. Again, I’ll unpack this in the weeks to come.

More and more transgender characters are appearing on screen but the tendency, especially in Hollywood, is to cast a cisgender white man in the role of a transgender woman. Casting a cis male in the role of a transgirl or woman is not an authentic portrayal of a trans woman. It’s reinforcing the ignorant and misinformed notion that a transwoman is really a man and being trans is about cross-dressing. Trans voices are crucial in telling authentic stories about trans characters.

As a white, cisgendered, middle-class lesbian, I acknowledge that FIRST DAY isn’t my story to tell, but as a white, cis, middle-class lesbian, I’m fully aware that I’m in a privileged position within my community and, as such, I have the resources to tell this story. By passing these resources onto Evie, not only does she have the opportunity to tell her story, but the story we set out to tell in the first place is so much better than it ever could have been without her.

There is much to talk about in regards to this project, particularly in the current political climate. I’ll do my best to talk through as much of this as I can in the coming weeks. I also have a feeling that once FIRST DAY has aired and people have watched it (or not), there will be a whole lot more to discuss and a whole bunch of people voicing their opinion.

By Julie Kalceff

 Photo credit: Nick Prokop Photography

Photo credit: Nick Prokop Photography