Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Pearl Tan

Pearl Tan is the Arts & Culture sector winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.

After graduating from Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 2005, Pearl Tan’s acting career got off to a buoyant start with national exposure on commercial TV’s Sea Patrol as Federal Agent Alicia Turnbull. She trod the choppy waters of castings until commencing full-time teaching at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in 2017, also launching Pearly Productions in Sydney in 2008, a vehicle to develop and direct stories that give minorities – like herself (a gay Asian-Australian) – the opportunity to be seen and heard. As an educator, director, teacher, PhD student, and occasional ABC radio presenter, she is a leading voice in raising conversations around diversity and inclusion. Named a Woman of Influence by the Australian Financial Review and Westpac in 2016, she also featured in the book 200 Women (which showcased influential women from around the world) and delivered a TEDx talk entitled ‘Reimagining Diversity’ in 2017.

In late October 2020, Pearl was awarded the Arts & Culture sector winner of the 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards, which addresses the under-representation of young Asian-Australians (under 40 years-old) in senior leadership positions by recognising their achievements in a variety of fields. Johnson Partners (JP) interviewed Pearl to discover what drives her agile mind – both creatively and strategically – while discussing the Australian film industry and her latest project in development, a comedy about mixed-race Eurasian sisters.

JP Over the years you have made award-winning fiction and non-fiction content that has screened globally. They include your YouTube series Minority Box and feature film The Casting Game, amongst others. Can you tell us a little about these two?

Minority Box is a web series of short documentaries in which I interview actors or creatives of similar identity groups in order to explore the trends in their experiences while also highlighting the diversity within ‘diversity.’ The Casting Game was a super-low-budget feature film that we shot on weekends back in 2017. It’s a feel-good Christmas rom-com with a really diverse cast.

I obviously love education, which is still surprising to me after struggling academically in my early years! I have an unusual mix of academic credentials and I’m grateful that people in the industry have seen this as a strength. My education allows me to tackle problems from multiple angles and understand the needs of different groups of people. With my PhD, I’m hoping to bring all of these skills together to create the space for more meaningful diversity in the Australian screen industry.

JP Your parents are Chinese immigrants from Malaysia and you were born in Perth. How did your childhood shape not just your career path, but your championing of normalising diversity?

I grew up in the time when Jack van Tongeren was terrorising Perth, firebombing Chinese restaurants and plastering the suburbs with ‘NO ASIANS’ posters. This made me acutely aware of my Asian-ness. I seemed to be too Aussie to be Chinese and too Chinese to be Aussie, and where did my Malaysian-ness fit in all of this? Over time, I learned that my mix of identities was interesting and a strength and that many people have some form of a mish-mashed background. The normalisation that I’d like to see is not just recognition or tolerance of difference, but an embracing of difference as a strength.

“With my PhD, I’m hoping to bring all of these skills together to create the space for more meaningful diversity in the Australian screen industry”

JP Within your professional career, what types of discrimination have you faced that differs from your childhood experiences?

Professionally, discrimination has come in the form of unconscious bias, microaggressions and defensiveness. It’s taken me a long time to trust that a flare of emotion within is my early warning system, and I continue to finetune how to harness that inbuilt system.

JP You mentioned in your 2017 ‘Reimagining Diversity’ TEDx talk that there are two ways to change people’s “hearts and minds” regarding discrimination (be it racial, homophobic, sexist, religious, socio-economic, ageist or other) by:

  1. Encouraging them to own their individuality and NOT cling to stereotypical role models (power in numbers so to speak);
  2. By storytelling; educating people’s emotions so they can re-imagine a world of diversity with absolutely no stigmas attached and confidently find their own unique voice that’s openly accepted.

Essentially you advocate for a world where diversity is normalised (i.e. no prejudice or discrimination). In the process of writing scripts and casting under-represented individuals, is it sometimes hard to refrain from stereotypical or tokenistic representations of minority groups (Modern Family comes to mind as a prime example)? How do you avoid this?

In the screen industry we are moving towards meaningful collaboration rather than consultation as one way to avoid stereotyping or tokenistic representations. Making an effort to ensure the process is inclusive from as early as possible will help to foster an open and safe space where collaborators can be heard. There is also a technique called ‘ask the other question’ from Mari Matsuda, which asks you to consider the interconnected nature of subordination and helps us to think in an intersectional way.

JP In light of the year to date –  the massive international death toll caused by COVID-19 and its negative effects on the global economy (and people’s wellbeing), the rise and rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and, most recently, Biden and Harris superseding Trump and his inner circle, what types of films and television series do you predict will be developed in the immediate short-term as a reaction to 2020?  Also, we’ve seen many Hollywood films by-passing (closed) cinemas and steaming directly on popular platforms like Stan, Netflix, Binge etc. What mediums do you see us using more over the next ten years to view content?

Wow, this question is hard! I think we’ll see a range of responses to this time – some will be escapist content while others will face the difficulties and traumas that we’ve experienced head on. I think audiences will continue to splinter and search for niche content that reflects their experience. I’ve got a hunch (and perhaps a hope), that there will be a reaction to the algorithmic programming that we’re being fed and artistic curation will rise once again. Perhaps curation will be the new-old artform for our digital times. I think the next generation of viewers will be savvier than ever and will expect authenticity whether it’s in the form of a TikTok video, feature film on Netflix or whatever else comes next.

“Over time, I learned that my mix of identities was interesting and a strength and that many people have some form of a mish-mashed background. ”

JP You are currently in development with the web series Return to Sender, after winning the Pitcher Perfect competition through Screen Australia in 2019 for a $30,000 development fund. Can you tell us what it’s about? I’ve read that you plan to use Facebook Watch as the ideal launch platform. What are the advantages of this medium?

Return to Sender is created by the fabulous Amy Stewart. It’s a dystopian comedy web series about Eurasian sisters who are quite literally told to go back to where they came from by an extreme right-wing Australian government – only they’re mixed-race, so nobody knows where to send them! So, they’re imprisoned in a centre for the ethnically ambiguous. We’re looking to self-release on Facebook to find a global audience of mixed-race and Asian fans who can relate to the themes and issues that we’re dealing with. By self-releasing content, we’re hoping to capture an audience which will follow us into our future projects.

JP As the Senior Lecturer in Directing at AFTRS, you are instrumental in influencing and guiding the next generation of storytellers. What types of films/documentaries or other are your students eager to make (if you can generalise at all)?

My students are amazing and surprise and inspire me every day. As a generalisation, I feel the upcoming generation of storytellers is very aware of social justice issues and is passionate about dealing with big issues. Their ideas and ambitions are huge, and they seem to have incredible maturity and strength. I hope we can give them the skills to be able to tell the stories they want to!

JP As part of the federal budget, Arts Minister Paul Fletcher recently announced plans to inject $53 million into local film and television production, while simplifying content rules. Of this, Screen Australia is set to receive $30 million in funding over two years to support Australian drama, documentary and children’s film and television content. If you were in a position to allocate the funds, what types of dramas, comedies and documentaries would you endorse?

In simplifying the content rules, important parts of our ecosystem have been scrapped. Our country’s diversity is utterly unique and shouldn’t be replaced with international content. For example, children’s content quotas have been abolished, reducing the likelihood that commercial stations will produce Australian content for children over time (which then puts additional pressure on the ABC to fill in the gaps).

JP You were involved in Diversity Australia’s 2019/20 cohort that partnered with The British Council to run the Intersect initiative – a mid-career platform of peer mentoring and knowledge exchange for people with culturally diverse backgrounds working in the arts. Compared to the publishing and curatorial sphere, is the film industry more or less progressive in terms of supporting diversity with its programming and amongst the workplace? And is Australia lagging behind or ahead in these matters?

The Intersect program is fantastic! The fascinating part of getting to know the seven excellent women in the arts through this program was how similar our struggles and experiences of advocating for more diversity were. We had encountered the same brick walls in our different areas, so sharing tips on how to deal with these walls was refreshing. I’m not sure if Australia is ‘lagging behind,’ as I’m not sure how linear this process is, but we could be bolder in dealing with these matters.

JP Lastly, you were a Co-Founder and quickly became Co-Chair of the Equity Diversity Committee for Actors Equity, working your way up into the National Performers Committee and then onto the Board of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Your work at MEAA included negotiating policies and spearheading the #CreateDiversity campaign in which screenwriters and playwriters sign a pledge to be more inclusive. You also recently received the Gold Honour Badge from MEAA celebrating your influence with the highest form of acknowledgement from them. Do you see your career path venturing more into an administrative role within the Australian film industry as opposed to creating content, or are you committed to juggling both?

I’m really grateful to MEAA for paving a pathway where I could tread into leadership roles. I’ve taken what I’ve learned from working with MEAA into the Australian Director’s Guild (ADG) board and continue to advocate for creative practitioners and diversity there. I feel my career path will always have elements of advocacy, education and content creation… each element enriches the others and, as hectic as it is, I enjoy balancing all of these!

Johnson Partners features monthly interviews with all the 2020 category winners to further explore their career achievements and the challenges they have confronted in their pursuit for excellence – from bamboo ceilings to political and economic hurdles, amongst others. See more here.

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