Hot Docs 2019 Women Directors: Meet Maya Newell – “In My Blood It Runs”

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Maya Newell is an award-winning Australian filmmaker with a focus on social impact documentary. Her credits include short docs “Two”and “Growing Up Gayby,” as well as the feature documentary “Gayby Baby,” which premiered at HotDocs and screened at BFI London Film Festival and Doc NYC.

“In My Blood It Runs” will premiere at the 2019 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 26.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

MN: Set in the remote Northern Territory of Australia, “In My Blood It Runs” is a story told through the eyes of 10-year-old Arrernte/Garrwa Aboriginal boy and child-healer Dujuan. We walk with him as he traverses a Western education system not built for him, a child protection system threatening to remove him from his family, and police and juvenile justice system that entraps and tortures youths.

The film focuses on a intelligent boy who is completely missed by the white world around him and tells a hidden story of a family fighting to ground their child in language, culture, and identity. This film offers a pedestal for Dujuan to share his innate truths, humor, and heartbreaking wisdom with the world.

In the end, when Dujuan cannot run or fight alone, he realizes that not only has he inherited the trauma and dispassion of his people, but also the strength, resilience, and resistance of many generations of his people, which holds the key to his future.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

MN: Dujuan is a witty, charismatic, ratbag kid and within him lies many compelling contradictions—he is childlike, yet wise; vulnerable, yet stronger and more grounded than most adults; he is clever, but not by Western learning standards. I believe his unique perspective and heart-nourishing worldview have so much to teach us all as humans about how we should treat one another.

I met Dujuan through relationships that began around a decade ago, when I had the privilege to be invited by Elders and families at Akeyulerre Healing Center 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 songlines 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—in Australia, as in many Western countries, First Nations children are primarily taught only in English, and their successes are measured by Western values.

Together with the Elders and families who appear onscreen, we collaborated to make a film to combat those ingrained negative stereotypes that smother First Nations people. This is a film that reveals the fight, the culture, the language, and the love within First Nations families that is so often obscured from view.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

MN: The family onscreen have articulated that they want audiences to understand “that we love our children.” This is embarrassingly a radical idea in Australia and across the globe for First Nations parents.

Another key message was, “We should have agency over our own lives, and we want to be in control of our own solutions.” In this way, I hope audiences can admire the agency of this child to speak his truth. In the closing line of the film Dujuan says, “I just want to be me, and what I mean by me is an Aborigine.” He wants to reclaim the space inside that has been and still is being colonized and is rightfully his—in his land, in his body, and in his spirit.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MN: Managing the ethics to tell this story in the right way by those represented was by far the hardest part of this filmmaking process.

At the time of filming, 100 percent of kids in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory were Aboriginal. In Australia, children as young as 10 years old, like Dujuan, can be incarcerated. In this way, the biggest challenge making this film was supporting the family through the fear that their child would end up in this detention system. There were many times that we felt we might not finish the film due to the possible horrendous outcome of the story.

We worked alongside family, Elders, and advisors to tell this story in a way they felt was empowering, offering creative control of representation to all those whose stories are portrayed. We worked hard to ensure that we were not perpetuating the history of exploitation of Aboriginal peoples, like so many films and representations before us, and on a duty of care plan for Dujuan and his family.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

MN: We were very lucky to be selected for Good Pitch Australia, where we found philanthropic support for the film’s budget and outreach campaign. We actually fully funded an impact campaign prior to financing the film, which spoke volumes about our team’s commitment to make sure this film gives back to those who have the courage to share their story.

We were also funded by Screen Australia, Screen Territory, South Australian Film Corporation, and Sundance Institute Documentary Fund. We were also lucky enough to be selected for a Sundance Institute Music and Sound Lab at Skywalker Sound, which was incredibly fun—we are very proud of the soundscape of the film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

MN: When I was 17, I met a man called Billy Marshall Stoneking. He was an eccentric, big-hearted scriptwriter who spoke with swift hand movements and a commanding voice. He allowed me to fall in love with stories, and I soon understood the immense power of films, especially documentary films, to connect audiences with the universality of the human experience.

I threw myself into making documentaries—tackling a Michael Jackson impersonator turned toy collector, courageous children in LGBTQI families, a sad clown fighting to become an Australian, an agoraphobic mother raising a child, and other stories.

Billy passed away recently, but left in me that gift—I realized that I, too, am one of the obsessed. I love that I have the privilege to learn deeply from people with lived experience of otherness in my work and act as a bridge of such voices to reach those sitting in cinema seats.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

MN: Worst advice: “You can’t do it, it’s too hard”—that familiar “no” response that is ultimately very unhelpful and misleading.
Best advice: To always trust your gut, intuition, and integrity.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

MN: Work with the people who make you feel strong. Find solidarity in the female and female-identified artists that are growing in power around you, and disregard those who cannot accept your inherent right to tell stories that you care about.

Also, it’s not just what we make, but how we make it that counts. As documentary filmmakers, we need to be always questioning the ethics by which our stories are made.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MN: I love Sophie Hyde’s “52 Tuesdays,” a story that challenges the traditional structure of storytelling and introduces a gentle yet strong sensibility missing from many renditions of femininity. Filmed over 52 Tuesdays in a year, it shows us new ways of [prioritizing] the needs of women on set and challenges the intensity of traditional production schedules. It’s also a daring, bold, and beautifully shot work of art.

W&H: It’s been a little over a year since the reckoning in Hollywood and the global film industry began. What differences have you noticed since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

MN: The foundations of power have been well shaken! The courage of women to speak their truth and finally be heard has had a tremendous ripple effect for the entertainment industry and in all industries around the world. The arrests, the sentences, and the public humiliation are only first chapter of this transition of power structures.

The second chapter is the cultural shift that moves quietly within the conversations that continue to spill out awkwardly from dinner parties, on intimate walks on the beach between friends, and in the whispers beyond the red carpet. I can’t speak for others, but I have a new skip in my step.