Hot Docs 2019: Talking With Director Maya Newell About Her Film ‘In My Blood It Runs’

Hot Docs 2019: Talking With Director Maya Newell About Her Film ‘In My Blood It Runs’

Some things are hard to talk about, but that’s what makes for some of the most compelling documentaries…

In My Blood It Runs which is having its world premiere this Friday at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival is a heart wrenching look at the daily struggles faced by the Aboriginal Youth of Australia in a school, political and penal system that is seemingly designed to have these young people fail at every turn.  This film follows the journey of one young man who is filled with potential but struggles alongside his family to overcome not only a the system, but their own people’s internal struggles with maintaining their culture while still acknowledging the need for an education and how to not only survive but thrive in the ever expanding outside world.

In advance of the films premiere I got the unique pleasure to have an e-mail conversation with director Maya Newell about her experiences making the film, the importance of highlighting this topic, the discomfort on the potential of showing the film in Australia and so much more.

Dave Voigt: This truly is such a complex issue and it’s a film that really hinges on your subject Dujuan. How did you ultimately find him and his family as subjects in order to tell the story that you wanted to?

Maya Newell: Around a decade ago, when I was 21, I had the privilege to be invited by elders and families at Akeyulerre Healing Centre in Alice Springs to make films with them about the empowering work families are doing to educate their children in language, culture and identity. I sat with Elders as they recorded song lines for their grandchildren for fear they may be lost, witnessed kids visit their country for the first time and heard children speaking confidently and fluently in their first, second or third languages.

But I was shocked to learn that our mainstream education system perceives these same children as failures at school. And it’s no surprise, when in Australia as in many Western countries, First Nations children are primarily only taught in English and their successes are measured by western values. Rarely do we see or value the inner lives of First Nations children growing up as they navigate the rich and complex bi-cultural society they are born into.

So In My Blood It Runs is built on the foundation of many years working with Akeyulerre Healing Centre, and grew organically from these relationships. I met Dujuan, Megan and Carol on multiple trips to country where we made films about learning Arrernte and knowing the land.

Then about 3 years ago, I was on an Ngnagkere (traditional healing) camp and Dujuan started telling me articulately about the world as he saw it. What an intelligent, charismatic, witty and cheeky kid! He was screaming for a spotlight with his heartbreaking wisdoms, childlike sense of morality and adult vulnerability. He was very excited about being in a film, and due to the years of trust built over the previous years, we were able to jump right in. I definitely grew into this film; I needed to be well on my journey of decolonisation and understanding of Arrerte worldview to even contemplate making this film.

* Note; “country” is used in Australia to refer to broadly to land – and in an Indigenous context to people’s traditional lands.

The film really does manage to hammer home the issue of how the westernized school system doesn’t work in favor of these Aboriginal kids and in fact it does work against them.  Was this the primary focus of your film going in or was it something that became more and more apparent as you got deeper into the material?

Actually the opposite – in the beginning I thought we were making a film about education, but I soon realised that it was about so much more. While western structures like to silo out issues like education, juvenile justice or welfare, when you follow a child’s life – sit with them – everything is connected. In My Blood It Runs illuminates this interconnectedness, and that understanding the cycles of human rights abuses means one element of the system cannot be separated from one another. They feed and sustain the disadvantage and poverty and, at times, seem to actively keep people disempowered. I realised, through spending intimate time with Dujuan and his family, that change needs to be approached holistically as it is experienced by people, not one ‘issue’ at a time, in isolation.

I was struck by the genuine sense of balance in the film, in how many of your Aboriginal subjects understood the importance of a modern (or colonialist) education yet still wanted to hold on to the traditional older ways of their people. 

How important was it for you to hold that line while assembling the film to ensure that it was the issues surrounding the educational system that we’re hammered home to an audience rather than issues of racism?  Obviously those issues are still around (especially around the detention centres) but the film felt focused on the necessary positives that both types of education could provide the young people.

What I have learnt is that language, culture and identity are the foundation of everything for Arrernte people, and is core to children’s wellbeing. First Nations peoples shouldn’t have to choose, they should be able to raise their children in ‘both ways’ western education, and Arrernte education – as asserted by Carol (Dujuan’s grandmother) in the film. The care, the teaching, and the constant love and effort to support children in this First Nations education is often ignored and rarely valued by western systems. We wanted to show that unseen part of the story, the parallel education that despite a lack of recognition is beating with life and strength.

This film was made in collaboration with the Arrernte and Garrwa families, so the ‘balance’ you mention was upheld by the family and advisors. It was a careful balance to make sure the film was not reinforcing the pervasive negative tropes about young Indigenous people, but instead told a strength and loved based story.

We were very clear we wanted to dispel the conventional myths of failure, trauma and dysfunction of First Nations families and instead amplify the resilience, strength and love so often exempt from our screens.

This film also truly highlights the people as well as the issue at hand.  Given the systematic neglect that is seemingly inherent in the system for the Aboriginal peoples, was there any hesitance to get people to participate in the film for fear of reprisal or just even more systemic abuse?

The years of prior work alongside families to make empowering short films about their lives instilled a sense of trust that made the intimacy of this film possible.

From the onset, we built a structure of community control around the project to provide a sense of trust in our intentions and vision. One of our First Nations producers, Rachel Naninnaq Edwardson in particular gave critical guidance on the consultation model that ensured that those in the film had final say on the ways in which they were represented. So early on, we had the family and advisors outlining important messaging and we all agreed to be extremely careful not to perpetuate conventional prejudices.  Those represented, the advisors and the Traditional Owner of the country we were filming on made us accountable and all involved fed back on the film at assembly, rough-cut and fine-cut stages during consultation sessions.

In terms of fear of reprisal, there is some discomfort with the film coming out locally. It will be hard. But we are addressing this as a united team of filmmakers, subjects, advisors, funders, screen agencies, philanthropists who are clear on the duty of care to Dujuan and his family to share their story with the world.

The families have struggled enormously already and feel that if this film can cause a stir and open hearts and minds, then it has been agreed that those involved are up for the fight.

We will also have an impact strategy with the release of this film, and will be walking by the side of families as they driving the change they want to see.

These problems are repeated with native populations all across the world in some way, shape or form.  Do you think there is any kind of legitimate “solution” out there in order to abate these neglectful and even abusive practices or would it come down to something as simple as just having a further understanding that we all need to adapt and find a middle ground at every level, ranging from globally to locally?

What would be your one hope for this film? (Aside from the obvious of getting it in front of as many audiences as possible)

In impact strategy workshops, the Arrernte and Garrwa families identified three key goals for the film. To amplify ‘truth-telling’ and reckoning with Australia’s past – addressing untold histories and ongoing impacts of racism. To build political support for a formal First Nations lead education system in Australia and to reform juvenile justice from a punitive to a restorative approach.

We hope that the film can encourage policies that centre the rights of First Nations peoples allowing them to have agency over their own decisions and given the respect and dignity they deserve.

As William Tilmouth, one of our key Arrernte advisors always reminds me – the change we need to see all comes down to agency and control, “My people don’t desire to be second class citizens and drift with the currents of prescribed solutions. My people don’t desire educational failure because education is not designed for them.”

In My Blood It Runs is having its World Premiere at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as a part of the Hot Docs Film Festival on Friday April 26th.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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