Australian women with disabilities rise through the ranks of the Hollywood film industry

When Chanel Bowen was recovering in a hospital bed, she couldn’t have known she’d be in Los Angeles in three years working for Hollywood’s biggest family entertainment company.

Originally from Dunsborough in the south-west of Western Australia, Ms Bowen was injured in a riding accident and suffered brain damage, which left her hard of hearing and prone to overheating.

Despite the effects of the injury, Ms. Bowen still rides horses and enjoys a successful career as a director, including for popular series like Mystery Road: Origin.

She won a place in Screenworks’ Regional Screen In LA scheme, which gives regional Australians access to the Hollywood industry, just two months after leaving hospital.

Ms Bowen said the contact with death prompted her to apply and start learning how to create the stories that interested her.

“I was still in bed, I would be really happy if I walked to the kitchen that day, that kind of stuff,” she said.

“I was really unhappy with the kind of things I was doing every day. Because before that, I was a very ambitious person, a very, maybe painfully overachieving person.”

Now, Ms. Bowen lives in Los Angeles and works for the animated film company Animal Logic Entertainment, which produces popular family films like Happy Feet, and she advocates for the inclusion of women and people with disabilities in the media.

Change is on the way

The film industry has been restricted and exclusive for many years, but Ms Bowen said she felt it was becoming more inclusive of people with disabilities.

Netflix’s Heartbreak High.(Provided: Netflix)

Netflix Australia’s recent series Heartbreak High has been praised for its portrayal of various characters, especially those with disabilities.

Quinni Gallagher-Jones, played by openly autistic activist and writer Chloe Hayden, is the lead character with autism in the hit comedy-drama.

Ms. Hayden helped write much of Quinni’s character and she said the authenticity came down to the various writers.

A teenage girl with colored eyeshadow rests her head on a pile of books in the school library.
Chloe Hayden plays Quinni in Netflix’s Heartbreak High reboot.(Provided: Netflix)

“Some of it was intentional, but there were a lot of my own life experiences that were sort of written into the story that weren’t intentional,” she explained.

“She [Quinni] was written to be neurodiverse, but they never specified what that meant. And I think after the casting directors and the writers of the show saw how passionate I was about it… there was no other option.

“There are certainly a lot of experiences that are a lot of my own story, but also a lot of the story of the writers on the show who are autistic, and there were also autism consultants and that’s their story. .”

There are still many barriers preventing people with neurodiversity and disabilities from obtaining positions in the film industry, which Bus Stop Films CEO Tracey Corbin-Matchett is committed to removing.

Tracey Corbin-Matchett and interns
Tracey Corbin-Matchett and interns on the set of a documentary called It Won’t Define Me(Michael Santos)

“In the screen industry and getting a job, it really depends on who you know,” Ms Corbin-Matchett said.

“And it’s also an industry based on networking. And so, for people with disabilities, if you’re not invited to the aperitif, you’re not invited to the opening night, to the cinemas [are] unreachable, then you’re not seen and you’re not considered and you’re not part of the conversation where opportunities arise.”

Bus Stop Films is a non-profit organization that supports and educates people with disabilities in film, and recently launched an employment service to help their students find jobs in the industry.

Ms Bowen has worked with Bus Stop Films, which has outlets across Australia and recently expanded to WA.

Knock on locked doors

Ms Hayden and Ms Bowen both have stories to tell about discrimination in the film industry.

Actress Actor Chloe Hayden
Chloe Hayden says people with disabilities shouldn’t be put off by bad experiences in the industry.(Provided)

Ms Hayden said before auditioning for Heartbreak High she lost several roles when casting directors found out she had autism.

“The casting director was calling me after I got the part and was like, ‘Hey, we just found out you have autism, we can’t offer you the part anymore,'” she said. .

“It’s happened to me at least a dozen times.

“It’s not a great feeling, it just shows there’s a place for us. It’s just about finding those good people and not letting those bad experiences affect you.”

Chanel Bowen smiling next to a Zootopia poster
Chanel Bowen, who now lives in LA, sits on the Disability Advisory Board in WA.(Provided)

Ms Bowen said after her accident she was called an ‘insurance liability’ by a producer when she asked to join a production crew.

“It was a shame that my first experience trying to get back on a set after getting my handicap was so negative, and I never set foot on that set,” she said.

“The producer, she ended up saying, ‘Oh, no, you can come’…and I didn’t want to.

“I knew what kind of person was running this set, I knew I didn’t want to be in this culture.”

Diversity on and off screen

But her experience couldn’t have been more different when she returned to the Mystery Road team to direct the prequel series Mystery Road: Origin.

Dylan River, director and head writer of Mystery Road: Origin, said that when Ms Bowen returned to set, he hadn’t realized she had suffered a head injury.

He said it was helpful that Ms Bowen was open about the constraints of her disability and that he was willing to accommodate her needs.

Dylan River
Cinematographer and director Dylan River shot Sweet Country, The Beach and Mystery Road.(Supplied: AIDC)

“But for me the best thing was to be aware of it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have thought differently,” he said.

Ms Bowen said she felt respected by Mr River and enjoyed working on Mystery Road, despite the climate in Kalgoorlie presenting a challenge for her overheating problem.

“There was so much trust from Dylan River. He had so much faith, and we had worked together before,” she said.

“He would turn to me and he would say, ‘What do you think about that? You’re going to do this, you say this to this crowd, “and I loved that confidence and that faith.”

Mr River said he jumped at the chance to work with Ms Bowen again.

“She’s fantastic at her job,” he said.

Mystery Route: Origin
The third series of Mystery Road was filmed in the Goldfields of WA.(Provided)

He said it was important that what was behind the scenes reflected what was on screen, aiming to have diversity within his film crews.

“The industry has realized that we need people making films that are multicultural and inclusive of our society,” Mr. River said.

Despite the barriers to diversity in film and television, people like Ms. Hayden and Ms. Bowen have been pioneers in changing attitudes in both content creation and acting.

“I think it’s so late that we see more representation…if you don’t do it 100% accurately, there’s no point in doing it at all,” Ms Hayden said.

“If you’re going to have characters with disabilities, people with disabilities have to be in every aspect of that process.”