Monique Schafter is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker who currently reports for the ABC’s nightly current affairs program 7.30. She recently directed the documentary, ‘Our Little Secret’ (ABC2), exploring the motivation behind child sexual abuse, and co-directed “In My Shoes” about transgender youth. Monique co-hosted the ABC’s ground-breaking current affairs program Hungry Beast and writes columns for a range of LGBT publications.
Hi, what’s your name?
Where do you hail from?
Melbourne! But I moved to Sydney five years ago for work and I’m still here.
Who do you work for?
7.30 on ABC TV.
Tell us a bit about you – how did you get to where you are today?
I could never decide on one particular career path because I have lots of interests so I was drawn to the media because it’s all encompassing. I figured I’d never miss out on anything.
I did a media degree at RMIT and got my first hands on TV experience making stories about subcultures for community station, Channel 31. Soon after graduating I was selected to be part of a development team at TV production company Grundy, thinking up ideas for new TV shows – everything from reality shows to game shows to documentaries! Fun gig. I did that for about six years. During that time Grundy merged and became FremantleMedia Australia. They set up a new digital content department which sounded interesting so I left the development team to create a mixture of original and TV-show spin off content for online.
I did that for about a year and heard that Andrew Denton was looking to assemble a team of young people to create a new TV show and online community from scratch. I applied for the gig, pitched a stack of stories ideas and ended up co-hosting and making stories for Hungry Beast on the ABC. It was awesome because we were encouraged to smash through conventional storytelling techniques and just be original.
After three series, one of my stories scored a Walkley. This was about the same time Hungry Beast got axed, so I think someone figured I was ready to be a grown up journalist and gave me a job on 7.30. That’s where I am now. A viewer said my stories are the “click bait” of 7.30 – I focus on a lot of quirky or ‘out there’ topics you might not expect to see on a hard hitting current affairs show. i.e. A pole dancer who happens to have one arm, folks with eyeball tattoos, the adult male fans of My Little Pony, or the antics of feminist punk protesters, Pussy Riot. I like to know what makes people tick.
What are your career highlights?
The Walkley was a huge deal because it was so unexpected. Hungry Beast was up against big current affairs shows like Dateline and Sunday Night, and I didn’t even consider myself a journalist. The story was about a woman, Maree Bourke-Calliss, who has ‘Locked In Syndrome’ – a condition which means she is unable to move or speak and can only communicate by blinking. It was caused by a stroke she suffered after being knocked in a netball game.
Rather than just interviewing the people around her, or telling her story through voice over, we wanted Maree to tell her own story. I sent Maree a list of questions in advance and it took her nearly a week to blink out the answers. When it came to filming, Maree’s responses were read out by her sister but we kept the camera pointed at Maree so you could see her emotions as she heard her own words being spoken. It was like this woman was speaking directly to you, telling you about the moment she realised she was trapped inside her own body.
I made this story with the incredibly talented cinematographer, Aaron Smith. When we arrived at the Walkleys and saw all the suits and evening dresses, we felt like two kids who’d rocked up to the wrong party. It was a surreal experience.
Who or what inspires you to get out of bed in the morning?
Literally my dog Blanche. She’s a little Hairless Chinese Crested with stacks of energy. We go on a big run before work each day.
Which other storytellers do you admire?
Ira Glass. I like how he taps into big issues through the eyes of everyday people. This American Life has a really gentle, intimate style of storytelling that leaves in the human moments – the awkward and funny bits – it feels genuine.
I really admire what US actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has achieved with his “collaborative” production company HitRecord. It was established in 2010 and has grown into a huge online community of artists, writers, filmmakers, etc. from around the world. At the start of this year he harnessed the power of this community and created HITRECORD ON TV – a variety show made almost entirely of user generated content.
I also like American filmmaker/author/artist Miranda July because she celebrates the ‘weirdo’ in all of us.
Doco-maker Louis Theroux is fantastic too. His curiosity seems genuine and he has a non-judgemental style of storytelling that leaves enough space for his interviewee’s character to really shine through.
I realise I must sound like a total Gen Y cliché here.
What do you plan to share at Storyology?
I’m keen to talk about 7.30’s efforts to engage a younger audience. I was brought onto 7.30 to help broaden the audience as a survey last year showed that 80% of our viewers were over 50. My stories often focus on subcultures and tap into online communities, which tend to appeal to a younger audience and get lots of views online.
I frequently use social media to find interviewees for my stories so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. We have a great social media team who are working hard to grow 7.30’s online presence and engage with that audience. I’m also keen to talk about our attempts at featuring user generated content on Hungry Beast. Despite all the buzz surrounding UGC, it didn’t work very well! Learnt from that experience.
Where can we find you?
LinkedIn: Monique Schafter