But it is amazing that this battle has been fought so many times in Australia since the early 60s and yet still needs to be fought again. Perhaps it keeps coming up because its terms are misunderstood. The battle is not about telling our own stories. Telling our own stories is something we can do on Facebook and YouTube, we need high end television drama to make our myths.
To mark the occasion of once more entering the fray in support of Australian creativity on our screens, I re-publish below salient excerpts, slightly updated, from my 2009 essay, first published in Lumina, called Make Our Myths.
The question of the purpose of film was once a hot button issue. It raged in the early 20th century, when the technology was new and people fought over whether its purpose was to be a visual art, or a dramatic one, or if it should be used to record the real or to create propaganda. Debates about purpose no longer rage, but they should. The question of purpose should be at the heart of every production, before cameras roll, before funding is secured. A production that knows its purpose has a much greater chance of achieving it, than one that does not. Just as an industry that knows its purpose has a greater chance of survival than one that does not. It is not just a matter of what is the technology of film for, but what is our film and television industry for?
The purpose of our television drama industry is, at this moment, a question being pressed upon us proposed reform to the television content rules.
Usually when the question of purpose is raised at the level of government policy making, our industry is justified as needed to ‘tell our own stories’. But this justification has worn out, if indeed it ever energised us.
The purpose of Australian drama production, I propose, is not to tell our own stories. The purpose is to make our myths.
What’s the difference? Three things stand out for me: scale, dynamics and ownership.
First scale. The potentials that are opening up for the crafting of large scale, long form stories in television series have begun to be exploited in Australia in the last few years. Rake, The Slap, Underground, Redfern Now, are working on a cinematic scale to give substantive proportions to stories on our now not so small screens. Australian creativity with cinematic scale in high end drama is just starting to be widely visible. We are really only seeing the second generation of film and television creatives making their mark, and the first generation of Indigenous Australians having huge successes on screen since the Australian 'New Wave' of the 70s. This generation is making great films and great television because it has a history of creativity to build on, a genetic coding of creativity, creativity in its upbringing on Australian content. Cutting quotas now will mow down that creativity in our industry, and send us back, within ten years, to a culture where every wheel that would make an industry turn creatively will have to be re-invented.
This sense of scale we are beginning to master is also salient to myth making. Myth is, by definition, larger than life. The ancient Greek and Roman Gods who are at the heart of so many western story telling traditions are larger-than-life beings embodying human traits and living those traits in extremes for the purpose of testing their strength and understanding their qualities. They serve the purpose of making something that is abstract into something that is alive and kicking. And there are dozens of these gods and heroes who embody traits like foresight, chaos, wisdom, or trickery. When a myth is made about these traits it is ‘our own story’ in that it is the telling of a story in which some core human quality comes into conflict with another one or with a force that it must change or be changed by. But the story is bigger than just the person who feels chaotic or capricious. It becomes mythic when it embodies that quality on a scale that is potent, active, calamitous and consequential.
I am not suggesting that we should make movies or television about Greek gods, but that we should understand the scale of these qualities of humanity and make stories larger than just the protagonist’s feelings. If we just tell our own stories, we tell of little conflicts that might really happen to us, and use ‘might really happen’ as a measure of strength or truthfulness of the story. When we make myths, we actively seek strength and truthfulness, not just at the level of our immediate circle, but at a larger level concerning what it means to be human. Qualities we struggle to overcome or which we celebrate, issues which concern generations, questions that have consequences.
We can’t really justify a show about a lawyer or a backyard brawl as myth unless we can explain how, for example, the fight between ordinary people from different backgrounds and cultural perspectives can resonate larger than life. My answer to this is that myth is also made through dynamics, and particularly, dynamic dramatic questions.
Dynamics are central, absolutely core, to the purpose of screen production. The Greek root word of ‘cinema’ is ‘kine’, meaning movement, and this is what we go to the cinema or watch TV series for: an experience of moving images, moving sounds and moving stories. Not static ones, but dynamic ones. Dynamics are the audience’s immediate, kinaesthetic, physiological experience of meaning. Change and modulation of force, and conflict or confluence of energies of life, emotion, image and sound are understood by audiences at an immediate physical level, a communication direct to the body that precedes our cognitive understanding of plot events.
Story dynamics are the rise and fall of movement and energy in the story events. Construction of these relies on construction of dynamic dramatic questions. A dramatic question is a question that implies action and has something at stake. It often starts with the word ‘will’ and it always has an active verb in it, not a passive one. Will someone do something, get something, achieve something, rather than: does someone feel or experience something. Action is dynamic, it forces change, movement of story, emotion, images and sounds. Creating dynamics is the reason for taking human traits and embodying them in gods. In ancient mythology gods give these traits a body and power with which to act.
Having something at stake is the other important half of a dramatic question. Stakes create dynamism by making us care. The more we care, the more we experience the movement between hope and fear. We hope something will happen, we fear it won’t. These things, in a myth, have room to move dynamically. In real life, relationships that may have potential for hope and fear can stay the same forever. We don’t really want to live dynamics, we want to live peacefully – but we do but want to see dynamics make relationship myths on the big screen.
I have argued that we should not tell our own stories, we should make our myths, and that the difference between our own stories and our myths are scale, dynamics and ownership. I have sketched out some ideas about scale and dynamics, but I have not yet made a case about ownership. This is where all of the ideas come together.
The notion of ownership is deeply embedded in the phrase ‘tell our own stories’ but the question of who the owner is needs to be confronted here. If the ‘owner’ of the ‘our own stories’ is the person or people with the money to make the screen productions or the producers who raise the money, then we are ascribing ownership to a very small, culturally prescribed group of people. Myth on the other hand is owned by everyone it speaks to, and it speaks to humans more broadly than within specific cultures or societies. In order to be a myth is has to be a story bigger than ‘our own’. This does not mean it has to be an American re-run, in fact, quite the opposite.
American movies and television are based in American myths, and these are not the same as Australian myths. I speak from personal experience here: Americans believe in manifest destiny and Australians do not. Americans are raised to behave as though they could become the president of the United States and Australians are not. American screen productions uphold or critique uphold the underlying myths of pursuing your destiny or dreams, and taking individual action in the world. So, dynamics and scale come easily to those myth makers, which is why it may seem as though to argue for scale and dynamics is to argue for Americanisms.
But we have the capacity to make myths here, which is why what is really at stake for us in the reform of content laws is not telling our own stories but growing our creativity. A creative culture is an engaged, responsive, innovative culture - just what a government fears most, in spite of any rhetoric to the contrary. Creativity in television drama made in Australia encourages a sense of 'can do' in people, a sense that their own creativity is being affirmed.
Myth making does not mean stories have to be happy or sad, smart or dumb, expensive or cheap, real or surreal. They must have scale, dynamics, and ownership by more than just their makers. Sign the petition, grow our creativity, make our myths.