Filmmaker Dena Curtis on bridging the gap

The ABC’s Libbie Doherty (L) and Dena Curtis.

When Dena Curtis turned to writing and directing a dozen years ago after years as a film editor, she was confronted by a recurring problem.

“The challenge was convincing people, mostly broadcasters, to commission Indigenous stories when they said no one would watch them,” Curtis tells IF.

Since then, as she acknowledges, there has been a “huge shift,” which she credits in part to the support and advocacy by ABC head of scripted production Sally Riley and Screen Australia’s Indigenous department headed by Penny Smallacombe.

Curtis, who founded Inkey Media in 2015, is in a sweet spot in her career. Currently she is crafting ideas for her segment of the anthology feature Cook 2020: Our Right of Reply, co-funded by Screen Australia and the New Zealand Film Commission.

The shorts from eight Indigenous teams from Australia and New Zealand will each provide an Indigenous perspective on the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s maiden voyage to the Pacific.

Her segment will look at a white explorer in the 1860s who gets separated from his expedition and relies on an Aboriginal to guide him back to civilization,. She hopes to cast a well-known actor in the lead and aims to direct the film in October, her third collaboration with writer/producer Mitchell Gordon Stanley.

Writer-director Chantelle Murray’s short film Shed, which Dena produced, premieres at the Sydney Film Festival. Funded by Screen Australia’s Short Blacks initiative, the film follows Mary, a young Aboriginal who is enslaved on a cattle station in western Queensland and used by the stock men for their pleasure.

Screen Australia has provided story development funding to Curtis, Stanley, writer Steven Oliver and script producer Jodie Molloy for The Force (working title).

The eight-part drama follows a team of ambos, police officers and firefighters, a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters, in a small town. The creatives held a workshop where they were joined by story consultants Shari Sebbens and Rachel House.

Rose Damon, script supervisor on ‘8MMM Aboriginal Radio’, with Curtis.

Curtis is developing a number of projects with Magpie Pictures’ Lois Randall after they teamed up on Grace Beside Me, the children’s series which screened on NITV and ABC ME.

Their slate includes Silt, an eight-part crime drama about a female detective who investigates the murder of a child in a small town and discovers the case is linked to her own life, with development funding from Screen Australia.

In April Curtis was among a delegation of 13 film and TV producers who went to Los Angeles in an Ausfilm-led mission, part of its annual Partner with Australia producer connection program. She met with reps of 15 companies including Fox 21 Television Studios, Acorn TV and Apple TV. Her first ever trip to LA, it was a valuable introduction to the studios and other gatekeepers.

After graduating from AFTRS with a graduate diploma in television editing in 2002, she returned to the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Productions (CAAMA) where she edited numerous projects including Rosalie’s Journey, Lore of Love, Willaberta Jack and Cheeky Dog, a documentary which she also directed.

Her writing and directing credits include the ABC’s comedy drama 8MMM Aboriginal Radio and the shorts Jacob, Hush and Nan and a Whole Lot of Trouble. She was co-producer on documentary series Shadow Trackers for SBS/NITV and the feature documentary Ella and series producer of documentary series Elements, produced by WildBear Entertainment for NITV and France 5.

Happily balancing her roles as producer, writer and director, her big goal is to get a series like Silt commissioned.