‘It has to be good’: Tony Ayres on telling diverse stories on-screen

This is an edited extract of Tony Ayres’ essay ‘From My Life to All Lives: From Identity to Representation’, in Living and Loving in Diversity: An anthology of Australian multicultural queer adventures (Wakefield Press).

I didn’t have a traumatic time coming out; it happened when I was 16 years old and told my history teacher that I was gay. He randomly took me to an illegal casino to ‘celebrate’. By then, I was an orphan, so I didn’t have to deal with the restrictive expectations of Chinese parents that burden so many Asian queers. Instead, my grappling with sexuality came in another form – the shocking way that I felt I was treated by other (predominantly white) gay men. While I aspirationally saw these men as my peers, they saw me as ‘Asian’, as Other, as undesirable. Another one of life’s strange ironies – my most unequivocal experiences of racism in Australia have been within the male gay scene.

‘Until fairly recently, gay men (being an oppressed minority) have had something of a ‘hall pass’ when it comes to the politics of race and desire, but there is a reckoning on its way.’

This took a fair bit of unpacking because it was like my different identities just didn’t mesh. My way of interrogating this contradiction was to make work about it. I wrote a short story about a gay Chinese guy, titled A Night Out with the Boys, which was published in a number of gay-themed anthologies. I then wrote about my experiences of being gay and Chinese in essay form, which became the basis of a documentary, China Dolls, where I interviewed a number of other gay Asian men about their intersectional experiences and realised that the alienation I felt wasn’t unique. The documentary explored ideas of ‘racialised desire’ and how this might be part of an unreconstructed colonialism at play in the Australian psyche. Interestingly, at the same time that I made China Dolls, there was a short drama made in England (Yellow Fever) and a documentary from Canada (The Queen’s Cantonese) on similar topics. It seemed that in that historical moment (the mid-90s) there was a common recognition among gay Asian filmmakers living in Western cultures that we were being treated in a discriminatory way.

Above: Image from The Family Law (produced by tony ayres)

I’ve kept track of issues of sexuality, race and desire over the years and I don’t think they have gone away, although they have evolved. My sense is that pervasive unconscious bias against Asian men by white gay men will become increasingly untenable as we start recognising the need for racial diversity across society in general. Until fairly recently, gay men (being an oppressed minority) have had something of a ‘hall pass’ when it comes to the politics of race and desire, but there is a reckoning on its way.

The last documentary I made, in 1999, dealt with race and sexuality from a different angle. It was called Sadness, a monologue performed by photographer William Yang, which explored a murder in his family many generations earlier, intersecting with stories of his friends who had died of AIDS-related complications. It was deceptively simple, a 50-minute visually stylised talk to camera, which screened on SBS and travelled around the world to many film festivals, winning a variety of prizes along the way. Making Sadness gave me a sense of completion – I felt that I had explored the intersection between race and sexuality (in this form at least) as much as I could, and that it was time to look at other subjects.

Although I had always operated within the broad spectrum of ‘identity politics’, I was increasingly aware of its limitations. Human beings are made up of a complex amalgam of identities, some coherent, others contradictory. To prioritise one identity over another is always a reductive act. For example, I may have had to face various kinds of oppressions because I come from an ethnic and sexual minority, however, this has been counterbalanced by the privileges I’ve experienced being cis-gendered, male, able-bodied, middle class (these days) and educated. Once you start prioritising one identity over another, you become limited and ideological in your view and you start mythologising what the world actually is. This is exactly the opposite of what I felt I needed to do as an artist. Our job as artists is to speak a different kind of ‘truth to power’; we find the complicated, messy, human truths that intersect against and rupture the reductions and simplifications of ideologies (both of the Left and the Right).

‘What’s changed more significantly than my intentions, though, is the world itself. Diversity of representation is one of the key issues of our times.’

While identity-based art at its best illuminates inconvenient truths about the tyranny of entrenched power structures and orthodoxies, it can (at its worst) become a kind of solipsism that posits the self (me, me, me) at the centre of all meaning. Nothing exists or is important beyond our own issues and what affects us as individuals. This leads to all kinds of distortions of scale. Suddenly our own oppressions and slights become more significant, more overwhelming than global inequalities, wars, genocides, famines. And this is not something that sits comfortably with me.

Image (above): Scene from Ali’s Wedding (PRODUCED BY TONY AYRES)

Even though I’ve superficially broadened the subject matter I deal with, in many ways I’ve pretty much stayed the same. I’ve always been interested in telling stories from the edge, stories about outsiders and that’s pretty much what I still do. Maximum Choppage was the ABC’s first mainly Asian comedy series, The Family Law is Australian TV’s first all-Asian comedy, Ali’s Wedding is Australia’s first all-Muslim romantic comedy, and Barracuda was about a gay Greek swimmer. What has evolved has been my sense of purpose. I started out making work that was very personal, trying to resolve what was troubling me the most. Nowadays, I’m much more concerned with the politics of representation. It’s important to tell stories from minority or invisible cultures because if those stories aren’t told, those people do not come into existence except as stereotypes or clichés. And that’s what good art can do – it can conjure up lives, it can make us feel for other people. It can be an act of compassion.

What’s changed more significantly than my intentions, though, is the world itself. Diversity of representation is one of the key issues of our times. We are now in a universe where Moonlight can win an Oscar for Best Picture and Transparent can be one of the most celebrated of TV shows. Another way of thinking about it – we live in a world where there is so much content, so many TV shows, that coming from a distinct minority background can be an advantage. It can make your work stand out.

However, there’s one big and important caveat to that. It has to be good. And that’s why I have always placed an emphasis on craft and, in particular, on writing (which is the foundation of most narrative screen arts). Knowing how to tell a story, how to affect an audience, understanding the necessity of suspense and intrigue, surprise and emotion, understanding the difference between mystery and confusion, between plot and story, between trope and cliché, are all crucial to the art of screen storytelling. Without command of the craft, whether your story connects with an audience is accidental.

Another important thing I’ve learned about telling stories from the margins is that while the cultural background may influence the texture, flavour and nuance of the central narrative, it is not the story. This is why it’s called cultural background rather than cultural foreground. The true theme of the work you are making needs to both be deeply embedded in and simultaneously transcend its cultural roots, the way a tree grows beyond the earth that nurtured it.

I’ve had a blessed career, in that I’ve managed to work non-stop since my graduation from AFTRS in 1989, which is almost 30 years now. In that time, I’ve transitioned from making deeply personal and autobiographical work to work that is broader in scope and reach. Yet in that time, I think because of my emphasis on the quality of my work, I’ve managed to remain true to my core interests – telling stories from the margins that reflect Australia’s cultural diversity.

Join chief editor Maria Palotta-Chiarolli and Wakefield Press for the FREE Adelaide launch of Living and Loving in Diversity, as part of Feast Festival, Saturday 24 November, at Treasury 1860. RSVP to maddy@wakefieldpress.com.au to secure your spot.


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