Changing hearts and minds with Genevieve Clay-Smith
Genevieve Clay-Smith was just 18 when she committed to shaking up the film industry. Now, the director advocates for people with disabilities through her award-winning films.
Genevieve Clay-Smith spent her childhood ensconced in the creative world of Young People’s Theatre in her home town of Cardiff, Newcastle. When she wasn’t improvising with her theatre buddies, she was spending lunch breaks immersed in writing stories — more compelled by the worlds she was creating on the page than the kids playing outside.
Set on making it as an actor, Clay-Smith delved into a Media Arts and Production degree at the University of Technology in Sydney, drawn by the idea that she could better herself as an actor from behind the camera — it didn’t take long for her to realise that was where she belonged.
In 2008, Clay-Smith was contracted to make a documentary for Down Syndrome NSW. She was to follow six people with trisomy 21 (the preferred term for people with Down syndrome) as they pursued their job of choice. During the 18-month-long project, Clay-Smith witnessed the many barriers to employment for people with trisomy 21 and the people willing to help them along the way.
“I started to get this sense of social justice; that you can really make a difference with what you have in your hands,” she says. “People were volunteering their time to teach someone how to cook or to advocate for someone in their workplace so they could get a job. They were really changing lives. That was really impacting for me.”
During her final year of university, Clay-Smith decided to put her growing ideas about social justice into practice using the tools she had at her disposal: a university education, access to camera equipment and a love of storytelling.
Film and television offer a unique opportunity to change hearts and minds. For Clay-Smith, film-making is intrinsically linked to human rights.
The stars aligned. Actor Gerard O’Dwyer had joined the documentary for Down Syndrome NSW late in the program. The first time Clay-Smith met O’Dwyer, he launched into a soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet. Clay-Smith was captivated; she invited O’Dwyer to make a film with her alongside six crew members with disabilities. The result, Be My Brother, won best film at Tropfest in 2009 and O’Dwyer won best actor. The film’s success had a huge impact on O’Dwyer and boosted Clay-Smith’s drive to bring more diversity to mainstream screens.
“[O’Dwyer] had been told awful things through his childhood and young adulthood. You wouldn’t think it now, but he suffered from a lack of confidence on the set of Be My Brother,” she says. “That was a defining moment for him in his life. And I thought I could do that again and again and again. And how wonderful would that be? To use my passion and transform lives and hopefully, at some point, the film industry as well.”
“I felt this real pang of injustice because I began to have my eyes opened to some of the problems with our film industry,” she says. “Everybody’s stories should be told and told authentically, not for the sake of benefiting one film-maker at the top of the hierarchy. It needed to be equitable, and I realised how it was very exclusive.”
Fork in the road
Winning Tropfest was the beginning of a tumultuous year for Clay-Smith. It began with a prestigious award and a good job at the ABC, but by the end of the year she was employed as a waitress and struggling to find work in film.
It was at this time Clay-Smith met one of Australia’s best agents. Her advice? Drop the ambition for making inclusive films. “She looked at me like I had two heads. She said that I would never have a career in the film industry, that it just sounded like some nice Community Arts program,” says Clay-Smith. “She basically said I’d be pigeonholed as the girl who only ever makes films about Down syndrome, that I’d never get a gig because people don’t want to see those films. I was so shocked and hurt by that perception, I had a real fork in the road moment.”
Clay-Smith toyed with the idea of taking a more traditional path to becoming a director, but her success with Be My Brother and her work with Down Syndrome NSW lingered. “It gave me more purpose in my film-making career, it started to be more than just me wanting to be a famous film director,” she says. “I could see that I could actually make a real difference in people’s lives through my passion for film-making. And that was something I couldn’t ignore.”
A unique opportunity
The problem with mainstream film and TV, says Clay-Smith, is that it’s too homogenous. “If we’re only seeing white people on television, the message to people that are not white is that you don’t matter enough to be on our screens and your stories don’t matter. It’s very damaging. Film-making is the industry of storytelling and everybody needs to be heard, because different people need to feel validated.”
Film and television offer a unique opportunity to change hearts and minds. For Clay-Smith, film-making is intrinsically linked to human rights: “You get to be in a skin of someone else for an hour when you’re watching a film,” she says. “You get to experience first-hand what they go through. How can you then ignore the opportunity or invitation to be an ally to that community and raise your voice when the vote comes?”
“I learned a lot about being vulnerable with people. Having mentors and being very honest and open about what was going on and not trying to be a lone soldier.”
If she was going to shake up the industry, Clay-Smith knew she had to change the way she approached not just the story, but the process of production itself. Instead of a hierarchical structure where the director is king, she envisioned a more equitable approach where the director is open to ideas from a diverse crew. “It’s a really different measure of success. It measures success from a human perspective, and how people are treated, how people are included, and how people can progress their own career pathways through being involved and mentored,” she says. “I always argue that you can get a great film, an incredible award-winning film, and you can treat people well and include people at the same time, it’s possible to do both.”
Fuelled by the success of Be My Brother, Clay-Smith and her producer on the film Eleanor Winkler co-founded Bus Stop Films. The company was to reimagine the talents of people with disabilities within the mainstream. “One of the greatest stigmas that stopped people with disability achieving in life is other people’s low expectations of them,” she says. “When we have low expectations of people with disability, we rob them of their opportunity to reach their full potential. I’ve always said at Bus Stop Films, I have high expectations of everybody.”
The world stage
One of Bus Stop Film’s major supporters and member of the Arts Council of Mongolia, Roger Perry OAM, encouraged Clay-Smith to take the company overseas. Keen for adventure, Clay-Smith flew to Mongolia to better understand how the program at Bus Stop Films could translate into Mongolian culture.
It was clear Mongolia was 40 years behind the Disability Rights Movement; there was a cultural belief that parents with children born with a disability had done something wrong in a past life. “I learned that [Bus Stop Films] could really help not only people with disability to reach their full potential and tell their stories, but the story in and of itself could help to impact society and what they think of disabilities,” says Clay-Smith.
The program was a success and ultimately led to more opportunities overseas. Clay-Smith’s other company Taste Creative won a contract with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to make a tourism film and Clay-Smith put forward the idea to make an inclusive film.
Shakespeare in Tokyo follows a young man with trisomy 21 (played by Gerard O’Dwyer) as he escapes his brother to explore Tokyo on his own. The challenging part of the project, says Clay-Smith, was convincing the client they could make a film with an inclusive crew: “I needed to convince them that it wasn’t going to compromise production. Once I’d shown them the evidence that it was possible, they were good with it.”
Bus Stop Films was in the swing of creating beautiful, poignant films that were shaking up the industry, but the business was built on an entirely unsustainable, not-for-profit model; the duo didn’t even have a business plan in place. Clay-Smith’s vision had got the company this far, but now they had to fight to keep Bus Stop Films afloat.
“I can’t tell you the amount of tears I’ve cried over Bus Stop,” says Clay-Smith. “My biggest fear was that Bus Stop would live and die with me. Finding a way to make it sustainable was the biggest pressure I had for nine years, because I knew I couldn’t keep doing it forever. And if I’m the only one doing it, then how can we expand the reach of the work?”
There were endless meetings with philanthropists and research into ways to make the business sustainable. And, among them, many dark nights of the soul, where Clay-Smith questioned what it would mean if she just stopped doing the work. “I learned a lot about being vulnerable with people. Having mentors and being very honest and open about what was going on and not trying to be a lone soldier. I learned that sharing the burden was really important,” she says.
In the end, the National Disability Insurance Scheme that began its roll-out in 2016 saved the company. It meant students could pay for their classes at Bus Stop Films. After 10 years of running the company, Clay-Smith was able to step aside and pass on the reigns to a new CEO while remaining on the board.
After all, there is so much more for her to accomplish. “My philosophy is that we’re not just here to have a career,” she says. “We’re here to interact with other people and help make the world as good as it can be for others in our sphere.”
Clay-Smith continues to be involved with Bus Stop Films and is currently planning long-form content with the company. But her true legacy are the lives she has transformed on her journey of bringing more diversity to our screens.