Interview with Johanna Garvin: Milky Pop Garvin
Sydney film practitioner Johanna Garvin’s short, The Milky Pop Kid, is screening at Sydney Film Festival’s Screenability Program in June. Ahead of its premiere we spoke with Johanna about making the film and her experiences cracking into the screen industry.
How does it feel to have your short selected to screen at the inaugural Screenability program at Sydney Film Festival?
It is a great honour and I can’t believe that a film I helped make is going to be screened as part of the program. It is quite extraordinary to be a part of a highly respectable mainstream festival. In the last few years I have gone to the film festival and I think it shows that there is a real shift occurring in the industry. The industry is recognising that for many years people with disabilities have been excluded from the decision-making, representation, creative process and participation in the industry. The Sydney Film Festival and Create NSW are acknowledging this exclusion, rather than just talking about it, which is what has always happened. Both entities have decided and done something about it. It is such an exciting time for filmmakers living with a disability and I feel incredibly lucky to be included.
You studied a degree in Communications and Media and then completed a diploma in Filmmaking at Metro Screen, why did you choose those courses and how has it benefited you?
When I was finishing my HSC I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I really wanted to go to uni and went to the University of Notre Dame. A friend had studied there and loved it. My mum suggested that I do Communications and Media at Notre Dame because I could do subjects in film and social justice. They were two areas I was really interested in. These subjects offered internships and that also really appealed to me.
While I was at Notre Dame I studied subjects in film like documentary making and learnt about making films. At the same time I was also doing social justice subjects in the area of disability and broader advocacy. I had great teachers who guided me to think in a different, more assertive way. My documentary lecturer said to me go to the US because they do fantastic film studies courses there. He was right. In my third year of uni I had six months at a university in Minnesota. I did a film studies course at the College. The lecturer that we had for the course was like a walking encyclopedia of movies. He was so passionate. Every Monday afternoon we would watch a classic movie like Chinatown, Hunger and The Graduate to name just a few. In that class we really had to actively watch the films and engage with the messages that the director was trying to communicate to the audience. The lecturer guided us to think quite deeply and beyond the surface of what was happening on screen.
From that point on I really wanted to work in the film industry. I thought it was a great way to communicate powerful messages. I did not want to work in the disability sector but I wanted to change people’s perceptions of people living with disability. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I was determined. Armed with advice from the film studies lecturer in the US, when I got back to Australia I researched film schools. I wanted to learn more about filmmaking and find a course that offered an internship. I thought an internship would give opportunities to have some industry experience. I felt that it would be extremely hard to get job offers in a wheelchair in the film industry. I enrolled in a six-month diploma course in film making at Metro Screen when I finished my degree.
The benefits of a degree with a major in Film and Social Justice gave me great exposure and opportunities to engage with inspirational teachers who were passionate about their craft. The teachers I had were diverse with a passion they were happy to share. It also gave me a realistic view of what a tough industry the film industry is to get into. This was further reinforced during the course at Metro Screen. These reality checks made me more resilient and more determined. The challenge of working in the industry made me constantly question whether I was able to access and engage with the industry as a productive filmmaker.
Can you tell us about making your first short film, Fearless Strokes?
Fearless Strokes is about a good friend of mine, Prue Watt, who is a Paralympian.
The film examines her career over three Olympic games. I wanted to move away from the stereotype of the storyline of someone overcoming their disability. I think this storyline has been overused. I wanted to focus how Prue has achieved so much from such a young age.
I had the opportunity to work with a great team. I learnt a lot about the process of filmmaking. I really enjoyed the collaboration of team that worked so well together. I loved this story and in making a film about my passion I realised that is the magic ingredient to making a successful film. This was a real insight for me. It reinforced my desire to make films that had something important to say.
How did you get onto your next project, The Milky Pop Kid?
In 2016 following the completion of the diploma course at Metro Screen I was fortunate in securing an internship at Screen NSW. At Screen I was introduced and worked with many people who were committed to mentoring. I was given the opportunity to meet Barry Gamba, a producer at Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE). Barry was coordinating a program for emerging filmmakers. This program was profiling artists who identify with living with a disability. This program was called My Life My Art . I was invited to be one of the filmmakers.
The Milky Pop Kid delves into themes of accessibility and exclusion, themes that mainstream Australia tends to forget about. You have managed to deal with issues that are quite serious in a very humorous yet informative style. What do you hope the audience will take out of it?
I hope there will be a shift in thinking. It would be great if audiences demanded authenticity and honesty in the portrayal of characters and roles of people who identify with living with a disability. I live daily with people’s negative perceptions, judgements, low expectations and stereotypes. Anything that shifts people’s attitudes in a positive away around disability would be more than welcome. People need to think more responsibly, respectfully and inclusively about accessibility. The Milky Pop Kid raises some great questions about accessibility, which I hope people will respond to.
Thinking on your career so far, do you think accessibility has been an issue with your career pathway?
At the end of the diploma course at Metro Screen where accessibility had been a huge issue I had actually thought it would be impossible for me to develop a career in filmmaking. All the locations I had been on were inaccessible. For example, a condition that most people take for granted, is being able to go to the toilet. The lack of accessible bathrooms on location was a nightmare. Imagine driving around Western Sydney at 5am in the morning looking for a Maccas.
I was really concerned and could not see how I would overcome the accessibility issues for filmmaking. I had actually decided that I should look for an alternative career. I then arrived at Screen NSW. I was immersed in a proactive culture full of problem solvers and professionals who are strongly committed to inclusiveness in the film industry. The acknowledgement of the lack of an inclusive culture in the film industry by this group of professionals has made an enormous difference.
Can you share with us some of your artistic choices in the film?
I wanted to make it a Mockumentary. I wanted to have interviews similar to the style of Modern Family and it to have an observational quality to it. I thought it would be an interesting way to highlight the issues that are raised in the film. I also thought it would be a humorous and enjoyable to make a film for the actors also. It would also be a way for the audience to see the characters in an authentic way. I also wanted it be a challenge for me, as I had not made a film in this style.
As a filmmaker living with a disability what do you think needs to be done to improve the participation in the film industry?
First and foremost what needs to change is the attitudes of industry professionals. Pathways for filmmakers living with a disability require more consideration because I have realised, as a filmmaker living with a disability, you can’t always taking a traditional route such as climbing the hierarchy. You need to be in creative control, such as writing, directing or producing. People need to stop thinking that it is too hard to include people living with disabilities in the filmmaking process.
What kind of films do you want to make in the future?
In the future I am interested on making a diverse range of narratives, not just about issues around disability, but issues that challenge me and challenge audiences to think differently about a whole range of social justice issues. I think that film is such a powerful medium to enact change.
For screening times of The Milky Pop Kid check Sydney Film Festival’s Screenability Program on this link: http://www.sff.org.au/2017-film-guide/screenability/