Santilla Chingaipe.

For filmmaker and journalist Santilla Chingaipe, holding a lens to the nation’s history, as well as the standards being set in modern society, is essential to understanding how discussions on representation and identity should be broached.

Chingaipe is a presenter and producer on the upcoming documentary Our African Roots, which explores how Australians of African descent have helped shape the country’s history for more than 200 years.

Produced by Chemical Media for SBS as part of the broadcaster’s eight-part Australia Uncovered documentary strand, the project was directed by Tony Jackson, who is also producing.

Chingaipe, whose previous documentary work includes SBS’s Date My Race and the ABC’s Third Culture Kids, is also penning an accompanying book entitled Black Convicts, which tells the untold stories of hundreds of convicts of African descent transported to the Australian penal colonies from 1788-1840.

She told IF she began working on the documentary three years ago as a way of bringing the stories to more people.

“You have to have a certain level of literacy to access books, particularly those that are historically dense, and I wanted to make sure everyone knew about these people,” she said.

“Being able to make a documentary, particularly with a public broadcaster means these stories can be made available to pretty much everyone.”

Born in post-colonial Zambia, Chingaipe moved to Australia with her family as a nine-year-old and has since built a career as an award-winning journalist, working for nearly a decade at SBS World News and contributing regularly to The Saturday Paper.

She is also the founder of Behind The Screens, an annual program supported by Film Victoria and Footscray Community Arts Centre, aimed at increasing the representation of people historically excluded in the Australian film industry, and serves as a member of the Federal Government’s Advisory Group on Australia-Africa Relations.

Her experience meant the process of going through historical archives to uncover the documentary’s stories was as much personal as it was professional.

“I didn’t grow up knowing about them so I definitely hope that is something we see more of.

“Also, I think it just serves as a reminder to all Australians that our origins have always been multicultural and multiracial. 

“Australia has never belonged to one particular group in the colonised sense and it’s important we tell the truth about these things because when we constantly lie, we peddle myths that enforce these ideas that some people belong and other people don’t belong, which is historically inaccurate. 

“For me, if we are going to have conversations about identity and belonging, then let’s tell the truth.”

Ajoung Maker in ‘Our African Roots’.

An inaugural recipient of Screen Australia’s Developing the Developer initiative – designed to give professionals from diverse backgrounds greater access to the industry – Chingaipe is in the midst of working on two features with Robert Connolly’s Arenamedia, both of which she is writing and directing.

One of them, Moongirl (working title), was announced as a recipient of Generate development funding last year and will be partly filmed in Zambia. The project is currently on hold as a result of COVID travel restrictions and will be preceded by another untitled feature.

As part of Screen Australia’s Authentic Storytelling series, Chingaipe published a piece in July titled The Path to Achieve On-and-Off Screen diversity, in which she commended the strides that were being made to increase on-screen diversity. However, she identified the representation of people from marginalised and underrepresented backgrounds behind the camera as being of equal importance.

Reflecting on the state of the industry, she said a key part of having constant on-screen representation was people that were part of the story making process.

“At the moment, I’m not seeing enough initiatives that are supporting people to be upskilled from marginalised backgrounds and this is across the board, not just in cultural diversity,” she said.

“There’s just very little when it comes to upskilling, whether it be cinematographers, writing people, or soundies.

“Unfortunately, film industries are notorious for hiring within their own networks and this limits access for people that have historically been excluded from the film industry.”

Chingaipe paid tribute to Connolly and Arenamedia for “walking the talk”.

“[Connolly and Arenamedia] are supporting people from backgrounds that have been historically excluded but also just young filmmakers,” he said.

“Rob Connolly’s just fantastic at providing the space and the freedom to explore what I’m curious about and putting that on paper.”

Our African Roots premieres on Sunday, October 17 on SBS and SBS On Demand.

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