Indie filmmaker Serkan Ozturk was surprised to hear from media colleagues and friends yesterday congratulating him that SBS had picked up his documentary Killing Off the Beat. As he and fellow producer Igor Shmaryan knew, Screen Australia had passed on their film — but SBS has just announced a very similar project, covering the same ground, but with a much bigger budget.

For the past two years, Ozturk and Shmaryan have been investigating the spate of murders of gay people in Sydney by police officers in the 1980s. They say they’ve conducted two dozen interviews and poured $10,000 of their own money into making the feature. Ozturk and Shmaryan have been documenting their progress on a Facebook page set up in February — it features clips of interviews and links to related coverage.

On Tuesday, SBS unveiled a new project on the same events with frequent collaborators Blackfella Films, which will air on SBS in 2016. The series, Deep Water, is billed as a four-part crime drama with an associated documentary and online prequel series. It is one of the most ambitious, cross-platform network events to ever be attempted by SBS.

Ozturk says he had been unaware of the rival film, which received funding from Screen Australia in May. Screen Australia’s announcement of the funding in June described Deep Water as:

“… an innovative multiplatform venture that will feature drama, documentary and online content. Deep Water recalls in full the gay-hate crime epidemic in Sydney that saw up to 80 murders and 30 unsolved cases. Jacob Hickey will write and Darren Dale will produce the film for SBS.”

Ozturk, a former Star Observer journalist, says he and Shmaryan, along with award-winning director Andrew Sully (who is no longer involved with the project), applied for a Screen Australia grant early last year. They were unsuccessful, but as part of their application, they submitted their research and screen treatment to Screen Australia.

Since then, the duo have been self-funding the documentary, though they intended to apply for funding that required them to present a nearly completed documentary. They submitted a grant application last week and believed their project broke new ground on the issues. The existence of a similar project, billing itself as a groundbreaking new account presenting events “for the first time”, has come as a blow.

“We’ve got really good people on this,” Ozturk told Crikey. “It’s not a crazy little movie I’m doing by myself. But I have been pouring my heart and soul into it, and we’ve been doing it the right way. We’ve had so much grassroots support. We’ve interviewed victims, historians, survivors, journalists from the time. And those interviews are done — all on camera.”

“Screen Australia didn’t think our film had merit. But I knew the idea was strong. But I didn’t expect to be dealing with this at all. It’s very odd.”

The Killing Off the Beat producers are seeking legal advice in relation to the matter. One of their concerns is the confidentiality of their research and screen treatment for the original Screen Australia grant application in 2014.

In a statement, a spokesperson said the Screen Australia “absolutely rejects the possibility of the treatment and research of one applicant being given to another applicant”.

“Funding applications are self-contained applications that are received by Screen Australia. All funding applications are treated confidentially.”

Asked whether Screen Australia considered rival productions when considering whether to fund something, the spokesperson said it wasn’t the body’s policy to explain funding decisions, “however it’s not uncommon for two or more projects with similar subject matter to be in development at the same time”.

Crikey asked SBS when the decision to produce Deep Water was first made, and whether it had been aware of Killing Off The Beat. In a statement, an SBS spokesperson said SBS was unaware of the indie film project:

“SBS has never received a submission of that title or from the parties mentioned, and was unaware of the project. We are unable to comment on projects outside of SBS, however — as is the case with the majority of SBS commissions for the year ahead — Deep Water has been in development for some time and we are really excited to be bringing it to Australian audiences in 2016.”

Blackfella Films was also contacted for comment, but did not respond by deadline.

Peter Fray

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