Students collaborating on a film at ACMI
Stories & Ideas

Mon 18 Mar 2024

The (Queer) Kids Are Alright

Education Representation
ACMI icon - ACMI authors
Zoe McDonald

Producer, School Programs

Connection and creativity can blossom when a safe space is created.

I remember combing the internet in the early 2010s for TV series and films that featured a skerrick of a queer storyline, a queer character or even a reference to something queer. A group of friends and I coined the pastime "hunting for scraps". I was desperate to see representation of my experience, a validation that my stories and my community mattered.

Flash forward to 2023, as a screenwriter and someone who has a lean towards the comical, I find myself drawn to writing queer characters who are funny, well-rounded and complex... and not a 'gay best friend' trope in sight. One time I remember being told by a producer that they loved my script, but unfortunately they already had another "gay show" on their slate. It's not new information that marginalised groups are still underrepresented in the screen sector and often these groups end up being forced to compete with one another for opportunities, particularly at an emerging level.

As a Producer of School Programs at ACMI, I have a strong desire to develop LGBTQIA+ specific filmmaking and storytelling opportunities for young people. What if queer people could be offered an opportunity to explore and develop their own stories while still at school? How could we support them to explore their experience of being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community with intersections of culture, race, ethnicity, disability, class? How might this have a positive influence on the way they value themselves?

All of these questions were funnelled into the development of a two-day intensive workshop.

ACMI Education Facilitators talk with a group of students in a filmmaking workshop
ACMI facilitators Zoe and Hannah

A safe space

In November 2023, I stood in front of our very first LGBTQIA+ young filmmakers cohort. Whilst I develop and deliver regular programs on screenwriting and filmmaking, I felt a sudden wave of fear come over me as I stood in front of the eager and nervous group of teens. I had a responsibility to hold this space for them, to guide them in their ideas, and hopefully teach them something they didn't already know. I wondered if our skillsets and lived experiences would be enough for them to trust our team, or if we were out of touch with what queer kids needed in 2023.

We set out to provide a safe, inclusive and creative space, and I soon realised providing an opportunity for connection, belonging and somewhere to feel seen was enough. As for filmmaking skills, the participants really brought the talent and enthusiasm. They delighted in sharing film and filmmaker influences, what they love about storytelling and the kinds of films they want to make. Some of their references were beautifully retro, wonderfully niche and showed a wide range of influences.

Students collaborating on a film shoot at ACMI
Students filming on location

Spreading the word

When we began spreading the word about the workshop, we reached out to schools in the hope of recruiting some students who may not have engaged with ACMI before. (Not going to lie – this brought back my ex-call centre employee trauma!) I did have a great conversation with a wellbeing teacher at a high school in Melbourne’s north. She said they don't really have any kids attending their LGBTQIA+ support group anymore because they believe they are all accepted at school and don’t feel the need for a specific group. So, I assumed the students turning up for my workshop would be out, proud and share a completely different perspective on being queer than the one I had when I was younger. (Insert cries of "Excellent! Good job teens! Yay for the modern world!")

But once I met our young filmmaker cohort, I realised this was not the case across the board. Many of the students were navigating the complex social and broader societal dynamics of identity, of being out, not out or partially out. One student said they often took their pronoun badges off on the train home from school because they didn't feel safe. Another student had a huge amount of support from her teachers to attend the workshop, and while her parents consented to her attending the workshop, they didn't approve of (or at least didn't want to know about) her queerness. As a queer woman who grew up in a regional town I understand what that's like, but in 2023, I made an assumption that things had changed.

A student directs a shot, looking into the camera.
A student directs their team on location

Partnering with community leaders

Within this cohort, there were a number of trans and gender diverse young people too, and I was lucky to have the wonderful Ro Bright (CEO of TILDE, the Trans and Gender Diverse Film Festival) as a co-facilitator. Ro came on board as we were developing the workshop, and together we found a shared set of values around storytelling and representation. Ro also provided great insight into making this kind of experience safe and accessible, particularly for trans and gender diverse kids. They are also an accomplished screenwriter and filmmaker in their own right, and having that expertise lifted the experience for the students.

Facilitator Ro Bright discusses a screenplay with a student.
Facilitator Ro Bright discusses a screenplay with a student.

Shared experiences

When dreaming up this workshop, I wanted to remove as many barriers as possible, so these students could feel free to explore their creativity and make connections with each other. I engaged Kat Doyle, a student welfare specialist with extensive experience as a wellbeing director in schools and as part of the Vic Government Safe Schools program. Often when we are delving into idea generation and lived experiences, different things can come to the surface, and Kat provided on the ground support to the students if they needed to talk to someone during the workshop. Kat’s presence was like having a warm hug surrounding the room and her observations were incredibly helpful.

I was conscious of striking a balance between the workshop being about the experience of being queer, and yet giving the participants the freedom to not carry the weight of that. The conversations around lived experience could just be social and not necessarily part of the planned content. Either would be ok. This of course might vary from group to group and we found that we could allow more time and space for feelings and issues around identity to come up organically. With this in mind, Kat pointed out that we needed more time and space for organic social connection to develop, and towards the end of the workshop, we found ourselves in a little group, listening as a few of the students shared (unprompted) their experiences. They were visibly buoyed by finding shared experiences and connection with each other.

Everybody loves feedback!

We asked the students for their feedback during and at the end of the workshop. As a creative person, I am used to my fair share of feedback and constructive criticism, but I have to admit I was taken aback by how confident the students were in telling me what was working for them and what didn’t suit their needs. They had such insight into their own learning and creative process, and they were not afraid to tell me what could be done better or differently... it was quite humbling! It encouraged me to listen, be responsive and to make changes on the fly.

Chatting and sharing ideas with the other people was the most interesting and enjoyable part, which mostly happened during post (production).

Kota (They/He/She), 16

Students editing in a filmmaking workshop at ACMI
Students editing their footage

Champions and role models

I've learned we can't assume things have changed and LGBTQIA+ kids are no longer doing it tough. For trans and gender diverse young people in society, in particular, these times have been hard and scary. (It was only last month that my friends were searching desperately for a new Melbourne primary school that would be safe for their trans daughter).

It was very clear from the students’ applications that teachers are the standout champions of these kids. They saw their students’ potential and more than that, understood that they needed encouragement and support to apply. Marginalised young people need champions and teachers can be some of the most important people in cementing students’ belief in themselves.

These students also need positive role models. One of the most successful parts of the workshop was having writer and actor Luka Gracie come along to do an informal Q&A. This was incredibly inspiring for the students – here in front of them was a young gender diverse person putting queer stories on screen and navigating a creative career.

Pride is something we all strive for, but we can't assume it’s a given for every LGBTQIA+ young person. As we plan for the next cohort, we keep this famous phrase in mind, coined by civil and children's rights activist, Marian Wright Edelmen: “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

– Zoe McDonald, Producer, School Programs, ACMI

Learn more about the workshop and other school programs at ACMI

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