Director Maya Newell reveals the systemic barriers she encountered in trying to get the Indigenous cast of her latest film, In My Blood It Runs, to the world premiere in Toronto.
It’s Friday morning and I’m on a plane bound for the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto for the world premiere of a new documentary I collaboratively directed, In My Blood it Runs. Shot over two years in the Northern Territory, the film shares the story of Dujuan, a 10-year-old Arrernte/ Garrwa boy who must navigate growing up black in Australia. Thrillingly, Dujuan, his mother Megan and five other family members are sitting beside me. For some, it’s their first flight; for all, it’s their first time overseas. They’re excited. I’m exhausted.
Trying to get everyone to Canada has been a Kafkaesque nightmare. It has reinforced just how hard it is for people facing disadvantage to navigate systems and experience opportunities in the way that most Australians take for granted. For me, travelling to North America requires a few easy clicks on a screen. For the other members of our team, compiling travel documents is an endless administrative process.
Home in Alice Springs, Megan and I set about getting her identification documents. In exchange for a stack of paperwork and $38, the NT Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages issue Megan a copy of her birth certificate. Twenty minutes in a queue at the Motor Vehicle Registry teaches us that identity requires consistent spelling, and Megan’s birth certificate was one letter short. There’s another $38 to obtain a correctly spelled birth certificate before zigzagging another snaking queue to have the ID reissued. The following day we discover that Megan’s last name is misspelled on her Medicare card and that her middle name is incorrect on her Centrelink card. Each inconsistency invalidated the rest of her ID and resulted in a banal, longwinded interaction and a new mountain of paperwork. This was the case for almost every piece of identification for the seven First Nations people travelling. With two weeks until the film’s premiere, an array of 18 incorrect identity documents lie on my kitchen table. How did so many bureaucrats assume that it didn’t matter enough to ask how to spell a person’s name?
The most important lesson I’ve learned while making this film is that family is everything. If any one of Dujuan’s family was left behind, they would question why anyone went at all. It’s this continuum of this unconditional love and mutual care that gives these families the sustenance to survive our impenetrable systems of oppression. This trip was an opportunity to support Dujuan, who would be courageously sharing his story for the first time on an international stage. Why was it so hard to get a family—with an explicit business purpose to travel—as invited guests of North America’s largest documentary festival, overseas for six days?
Over these last months, I have demanded attention to the misspelled names and developed an unapologetic register when speaking to all levels of bureaucrats. But in leveraging my privilege to solve this ludicrous administrivia, I was struck by how corrosive this process is to the collaborative dynamic we had established with the family. I was forced, again and again, into the colonial role of “saviour”—one that we, as a team, have always explicitly tried to avoid. This family are my collaborators, mentors, teachers and friends; they have led me and generously let me into their world.
In My Blood It Runs was made in collaboration with those who feature onscreen; we have shared creative decisions, resources, and have worked to ensure that the people in the film are in control of the ways in which they were represented. While not always perfect, we made a big effort to challenge conventional power dynamics. Yet my role as bureaucratic “problem solver” threw these small wins into jeopardy.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ stories should always be told with a collaborative approach in documentary because of the violence so often done by misappropriation and misrepresentation. Deep equity-oriented collaboration is fundamental for social justice. In popular media and arts discourse, the notion of the auteur is central. Here, artistic success is heralded by a singular creative vision. Screen bodies ask for the director’s name, festival travel allowances fund the director alone, media outlets want to speak to the director and awards ask for one name to engrave on their celebratory plaque. These funding and distribution architectures diminish community-driven approaches. They put artfulness up against process. Why isn’t ethical co-design driving structural innovation of the film industry?
It was eight days before take-off and after much tenacity, the passport applications were in, but I hadn’t even considered the federal police check.
When asked, “Have you ever been charged, arrested or incarcerated?” Megan and James were required to tick “yes.” In a curt email from the passport office, we were told our only chance to board the plane was if the Australian High Commission in Canada waived the police check. Luckily, we had done the advocacy work here and the High Commission had just posted about our film on Facebook. In response to a carefully crafted email, they granted permission for our travel.
Yet again, my discomfort rose at the realisation that to get the attention of these powerful people, whose goodwill we desperately needed at this final crucial hour, I consciously tapped into their awareness of disadvantage and unfairness. I pandered to a narrative that places them, and me, as saviours. The next email to land in my inbox brought me to a halt. The Canadian Immigration could waive the police check, but they needed details of every offence, documentation of every address and employer since Megan and James (Dujuan’s father) were 18, and a biometrics (eyeball scan and fingerprints) appointment in Sydney. As a result, they surmised: This being the beginning of a holiday week, it’s not going to be possible to get them travel documents on time for the travel dates.
Disheartened and exasperated, I turned to Megan for help. Megan grew up in Alice Springs, she has four kids and has spent most of her teens being a young mum. We’re close in age, and by many counts she has achieved much more than me in her lifetime. She paused and whispered quietly, “I really want to go.” Megan was so committed to being present when our film was first seen by an international audience that she was willing to bear a seemingly endless array of bureaucratic processes that continually brought into question her legitimacy as a trustworthy, responsible human. I rallied.
For a small fortune, we re-booked each leg of the flight to Toronto, secured an emergency biometrics appointment, set to the task of appealing to a worker at the Alice Springs courthouse to access two decades of charges, and set our minds to supporting families to write “declarations of rehabilitation.” Megan spoke while I scribed: Dear immigration, I have grown up as an Aboriginal person in Australia. When I was younger
I saw my family drinking and sometimes driving. While this is no excuse, I didn’t know better. I am working to be the one in my family who makes a better future for my children. For the driving offences I am an unemployed single young mother and could not pay for a license and registration of our car. I needed to take my kids to school, get away and go shopping.
I am sorry. Where the IDs once lay on my kitchen table, court papers lay in piles weighed down by items of cutlery. Ten minutes to close of business, we delivered a document with every private detail available on record about their lives. This trail of administrivia placed me in an uncomfortable position of knowing private things about my friends’ and collaborators’ lives that they may have otherwise chosen not to share.
These attempts to attain official travel documentation have given me a microscopic glimpse into what it might be like to navigate life in Australia as an Aboriginal person. Even with all of the privilege and resources that we had and the pro bono assistance of a qualified lawyer, doctor and accountant, travelling overseas proved almost impossible for a group of First Australians.
For many non-Indigenous Australians, it’s convenient to believe that racism is confined to backwards minds and far-flung areas. What is harder to see is how the social structures that work for many of us perpetuate disadvantage in ongoing and insidious ways. While many of these generous people along the way, I can imagine, felt they did a “good deed” to support our quest to get to the premiere, I wondered whether any of them would work to change the structures of inaccessibility that perpetuate these underlying inequities?
This process has certainly affirmed for me the necessity to challenge these often invisible barriers and to ensure the release of our film goes some way to tackling them—at the very least by naming them and sharing our experiences.
I look over at Dujuan sitting on the plane surrounded by his mother, father, brother, baby sister and both his grandmothers. Peering out the window he anxiously asks, “Maya, how is this big metal thing able to stay up in the sky?” The miracle of flight took the hard work of many people over a long period of time to finally achieve something that we now take for granted, but then felt impossible. His grandmother gives his hand a reassuring squeeze as we taxi down the runway.
In My Blood It Runs will be in cinemas nationally in early 2020, and is launching a multi-year social impact campaign aiming to address structural racism, First Nations-led education systems and youth justice reform. Find out how to see the film and join the campaign at: www.inmyblooditruns.com