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Neil Peplow Graduation Speech

Earlier last month, AFTRS celebrated the incredibly talented group of students that make up our class of 2019. In what was his last AFTRS ceremony before he steps down from the role of CEO, Neil Peplow congratulated and sent off our graduates with an inspiring and heartfelt graduation speech.

You can read Neil Peplow’s full graduation speech below.

Thank you Yvonne for that fantastic welcome. Thank you Nell Greenwood for your eloquent introduction. And thank you all for attending.

In particular I’d like to acknowledge members of Academic Board and Council who are in attendance, Christine Burton, Peter Tonagh, Pearl Tan our staff Rep, Adam Boys the student rep and our magnificent Chair Russel Howcroft.

I’d also like to welcome Peter Yiamarelos (YI-MAR-ELOS) Content Director from Southern Cross Austereo.

And our guests from Europe, Dr Fabio Spadi (SPAAR DEE) Deputy Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Australia, and Consul-General Karl Hartleb from the Austrian Embassy and his guests Melanie Ernstbrunner and Julia Weiss, who are here to present a very special EU award later on in the ceremony.

Now as you can probably tell from my annoying accent, I’m from the UK, and I’d like to take this opportunity to assure all four of you all that I had nothing to do with Brexit. I was here when it happened, and I hope we can eventually work something out as I will soon be returning to those shores.

I, too would like to congratulate all of you graduating today, and I’d like to thank the lecturers, support staff, and council, who work tirelessly to deliver our high-quality courses.

I’d also like to pay my respects to those colleagues who passed away this year: Peter Butterworth, Amy Longhurst, Peter Wasson and Ian Bosman.

As Nell mentioned, I’m sadly leaving AFTRS in June, so this will be my ninth and last graduation ceremony. It has been a genuine honour to serve such a great and important cultural institution.

This is the School’s 48th graduation ceremony since it was established by the Federal government in 1973, and over that time things have changed constantly—CEOs, Prime Ministers, technology and the cut of fashionable trousers.

Since the School was founded, there have been ten Prime Ministers and nine CEOs. We’ve moved from film to digital. And I’ve owned two pairs of flared jeans.

However, one thing has remained constant throughout—the School’s purpose—to find and develop Australian storytellers.

Over the last 45 years, the School has produced some of Australia’s finest filmmakers, as well as top-ranking executives and well-known broadcasters. Our alumni have helped to shape Australia’s culture—how the nation perceives itself, and how the rest of the world sees Australia.

Our alumni have devised or worked on many great productions—My Brilliant Career, Muriel’s Wedding, Red Dog, Rake, The Slap, The Piano, Shine, The Dressmaker, Rabbit Proof Fence, Babe, Offspring — the list is endless and ongoing.

They have won Oscars for Fury Road, Hacksaw Ridge, and The Lord of the Rings.

Our students have been key players at all the major radio stations and have probably enlivened your commute to work and home.

AFTRS alumni have accumulated an exceptional haul of credits and awards, making this one of the world’s most respected schools, ranking in the Hollywood Reporter’s top 20.

And from today onwards, you will be contributing to that legacy as graduates.

[I think that deserves some applause.]

But you can make a more important impact that goes beyond the credits.

Beyond contributing to the industry – you have the capacity to reshape it. Beyond your ability to tell stories, you can tell stories that matter—stories that hold authority to account. Beyond reflecting Australian society, you have the power to define how Australian sees itself.

You can shape the culture of this beautiful country in ways that confirm and renew its uniqueness on the world stage.

We live in an age where anyone can broadcast anything to anywhere. Global platforms like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and Snapchat are ever-present. 14 million Australians access some form of subscription TV— eleven million subscribe to Netflix alone. But these global giants have no algorithm that can capture Australian culture—Australian voices, landscapes or identity.

This School was set up in ‘73 precisely because, at that time, few film and TV shows were produced by Australians. Gillian Armstrong once said that when she saw Phillip Noyce’s first film, she felt unsettled and didn’t know why. Then it struck her: the actors were speaking with an Australian accent on a big screen—a rarity in those days.

We must ensure that we never lose sight of that progress and evolution. To keep moving forward, Australian stories must still be told; Australian voices must continue to be heard.

Above all, your skills must serve that higher goal—to define and defend the values that make this country special.

We all know that the internet has revolutionised broadcast media in much the same way as the printing press revolutionised handwritten manuscripts. The stats speak for themselves: the volume of online information is colossal and continues to grow exponentially.

On Instagram alone, one hundred million photos and videos are uploaded every day. On YouTube, three hundred hours of video are uploaded every minute. On Facebook, there are three hundred and seventeen thousand posts every sixty seconds; in that same minute, there are four hundred new users and fifty-four thousand links shared.

Never before has the world been so connected. Never before has there been such an opportunity to reach other people, and never have so many had access to so much information.

The possibilities are endless and exciting. In this new renaissance, new online trading routes are opening, new artistic forms are being explored, and organisations and institutions are becoming open-source, transparent and customer-owned, with education available to anyone connected to the internet.

However, although Google may seek to do no evil, the reality is less straightforward.

These platforms and networks that offer so many opportunities for advancement are also being used to spread fear, to create division, to push agendas that instil hatred and inspire self-loathing, giving extremists political traction and shaping a toxic culture that creates a fug of confusion about who we are and who we want to be.

This is nothing new. From the propaganda machines that drive genocide and war to the fake news that steals elections, history reminds us how media can too easily be put to negative use.

The tools are different, but the intent is the same: to deliver narratives that sway us to accept lies as authority and evil as tolerable. We have seen it most recently in Christchurch. And if we look closely enough, beyond our social media bubble, we can see it on our own streets.

I moved from being a producer to being an educator because I wanted to change the world for the better—not one film at a time—but one cohort at a time. To empower students from all backgrounds to fight against the polemics that threaten our society in unthinkable ways, that unfortunately can quickly become a reality.

My hope is that you will use the skills and craft learned here to counter narratives that cast a shadow on the truth. Instead, I hope you will shine a light, using what you know to create meaningful change by building a strong positive narrative for Australia that is inclusive and true to its unique history.

As Nell mentioned, our School is built on Gadigal and Bidjigal lands of the Eora nation. It was always Aboriginal land, and always will be. I hope that Australian culture too can be built on First Nation foundations—foundations that were laid one hundred thousand years ago with the birth of the world’s first civilisation and longest living culture.

It’s a culture that can teach the world how to be custodians rather than exploiters of the land; a culture that can teach us about innovation and ingenuity. Above all, a culture that can teach us how to tell compelling, meaningful stories that continue to resonate for thousands of years.

So it is with great pride that I can tell you that this year AFTRS graduates include twelve First Nation students, the most in the School’s history—so far.

Building on the School’s legacy of developing some of the country’s most respected filmmakers—among them, Warwick Thornton, Adrian Wills, Rachel Perkins, Stephen McGregor, Ivan Sen—I hope and I believe that our indigenous alumni will continue to produce content that acknowledges this country’s first nation history and presents this culture proudly to the world.

The Sapphires, Sweet Country, Mystery Road, First Australians and Redfern Now—all acclaimed by audiences at home and internationally, telling the First Nation story and showing Australia in ways not previously seen. Truthful and authentic representations of the Indigenous experience, they have helped to create a new narrative that addresses a difficult past and looks forward to a better future.

The benefits that our indigenous students bring to the School connect us all. Every student and every lecturer has gained from song-lines being brought into the heart of the School and a new understanding of what becomes possible when we fully embrace all of Australia’s diverse heritage. This is a positive narrative that shines brightly through what can sometimes feel like dark times. And it shows a way forward that should inspire us all. A way forward for telling the true Australian story respectfully and meaningfully.

For that, I would like to thank Kyas Sherriff, the head of the Indigenous unit, her team and all those who helped along the way. Thank you.

As I said, this is my last graduation ceremony at AFTRS – but I will continue to cherish the hopes and ambitions of the people who graduate here.

I wish you every success and all the inspiration and strength you need to keep truth, kindness, humanity, generosity and friendship at the core of what you do and who you are.

And to do that rely on each other – look around. You do not leave here on your own. You leave together. And you leave as part of the AFTRS family.

Tomorrow is a brand-new day and the start of your new journey. Although you can’t know where that journey will take you, make sure that each step is taken with purpose. Never lose sight of what you want to achieve. Be ready to adapt, and always hold on to the passion you have, to tell the stories that need to be told.

As a great artist once said: “map out your plans, but do it in pencil.” That artist was Jon Bon Jovi, so take from that what you will… but it is a motto that has served me, and my family, well. It has introduced us to this wonderful country, to this fantastic school and talented students like yourselves.

Thank you.


The ceremony took place on the 12th of April at the Seymour centre.


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