Maya Newell’s Indigenous doc resonates with festivals, commercial audiences

24 February, 2020 by Don Groves in Inside Film

Maya Newell’s feature documentary In My Blood It Runs has been winning hearts and minds since the world premiere in competition at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival last year.

The biopic of 10-year-old Dujuan Hoosan, a child healer and hunter in the Northern Territory who was struggling at school and facing increasing scrutiny from welfare and the police, is resonating with both festival and commercial audiences.

Developed via GoodPitch Australia, the film grossed an impressive $127,000 from the Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Brisbane, CinefestOZ and Screenwave film festivals and, earlier this month, the Perth Festival.

Co-distributed by Jonathan Page’s Bonsai Films and the filmmakers, the doc launched on six screens in the capital cities last Thursday, sold out multiple Q&A sessions and rang up $55,000.

It was among the top titles at Cinema Nova, where CEO Kristian Connelly observes: “In My Blood It Runs surpassed all expectations, selling out three Q&As in Carlton as well as multiple shows across the weekend. We added extra sessions to meet demand.”

Page says the film will continue at all six cinemas, he is adding several locations and it will then roll out out across the rest of the country via FanForce.

Citing successes such as The Australian Dream and Dark Emu, Page says: “I think Indigenous stories and issues are front and centre these days.

“The filmmakers have been exceptional at building audiences, working with committed partners and supporters from day one and then activating the audience well in advance of the release. The number of sessions selling out before the release was remarkable.”

The Q&As have been shared among the producers, Closer Productions’ Sophie Hyde, Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, Larrissa Behrendt and Newell.

Last week Newell spoke at a screening at the Alice Springs town camp where the opening scenes were filmed. “People were very teary and moved at the end,” she tells IF.

With the help of social impact teams and the organisations Akeyulerrre and Children’s Ground, the film champions the creation of a First Nations-led education system and an end to incarcerating Indigenous kids.

“We always wanted to use the cinema release as an opportunity to light a spark on the incredible work of the First Nations peoples and organisations that have been pushing for educational reform for a very long time,” she says.

“This boy Dujuan, who was not on anyone’s radar and the least likely to be listened to, was the youngest person to address the UN Human Rights Council last September.

“The Western systems that were meant to uplift him failed him. In the end, his family found a solution for him.”

Perhaps surprisingly, international distributors and sales agents turned down the chance to handle the doc so the filmmakers have taken that into their own hands.

Sentient.Art.Film, which released Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts, has acquired the US rights and Newell expects to announce deals with significant international broadcasters soon.

The UK premiere will be held on March 15 at the London Human Rights Watch Film Festival; a UK deal is yet to be concluded.

There will be a screening in Canberra tomorrow hosted by Labour Senator for the Northern Territory Malarndirri Barbara Anne McCarthy, which will also see Dujuan’s grandmothers and educators present their road map for a First Nations-led education system.

In My Blood It Runs was funded by GoodPitch Australia, Documentary Australia Foundation, Screen Australia, Screen Territory and the South Australian Film Corporation.

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Maya Newell: Don’t be afraid of doing things differently

Screen HubThursday 20 February, 2020 by Rochelle Siemienowicz

Shot at dusk on a street in Alice Springs, the opening scene of Maya Newell’s In My Blood it Runs is intimate and cheeky. We see an Indigenous mother looking straight into the slightly wobbly lens, answering her child’s questions about himself. The love between them – and also her concern for him – are palpable.

The 10-year-old Arrernte and Garrwa boy holding the camera is Dujuan Hoosan. Both he and his mother, Megan Hoosan, are credited as ‘collaborating directors’ of an observational documentary that was made with a clear social purpose. Turning these subjects into active credited participants in the filmmaking process is just one example of the film’s deep collaborative and consultative approach. Other members of Dujuan’s family and community are also named as collaborating directors and advisors in a project that sets a gold standard for non Indigenous creatives working with Indigenous stories, as well as for documentaries wishing to impact policy and create wider social change.

A different way of working with Indigenous communities

The philosophy and protocols behind the film are outlined as an Indigenous Project Approach [PDF] available on the film’s website for other filmmakers to use. Newell says the development and articulation of these principles owes much to the input of the producers: Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, an acclaimed Iñupiaq/Norwegian/Sami filmmaker; Sophie Hyde, of Closer Productions, a company well known for its groundbreaking methodology (52 Tuesdays); and Larissa Behrendt, an Aboriginal Australian legal academic, writer and documentary filmmaker (After the Apology).

The key tenets of the radical approach include: partnership with those represented; having a senior Indigenous advisory team; shared profit and ownership; an ongoing duty of care; long production timelines; and strong impact strategy and messaging for distribution and exhibition.

‘We made this film in a really unique way,’ explains Newell on the phone to Screenhub from Alice Springs on the morning of the film’s outdoor premiere in the hills of the Hidden Valley Town Camp, where some key opening scenes were shot. ‘We were led by one of our producers, Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, who brought incredible consultation models to the project. This meant that we were sitting with the family before we started filming, and throughout the whole shooting and rough cuts and fine cut process. They were able to watch footage and talk about what they did want and what they didn’t want in the film, and they knew they could pull out at any time.’

This sounds like a nightmare for control freaks and filmmakers on tight timelines, but Newell says, ‘It was very important that this was a story where the agency and creative control sat with the family and the filmmakers in collaboration.’ What this meant in practice was that, ‘we were showing footage directly after it happened and engaging in conversations about what it would mean locally and nationally, to have that story out there. This meant that there were no surprises by the time we came to the edit, and there was always a strength-based reason for including anything tricky.or sensitive.’

As for whether subjects could pull out at any time, Newell says that is something that should always be on the table. ‘It’s always a risk and I would hope that all documentary makers would take than on as part of the gig.’

Clearly this process took took a vast investment of time and energy. Not just the three years of actual filming, but the many years before that when Newell was engaged with Alice Springs communities making short films with and for them, a process that built trust and rapport. Newell says her commitment will probably include a lifelong responsibility and duty of care long after the film is archived and forgotten.

‘It’s the only way. It does take a lot of work,’ she says, ‘and a lot of the systems in the film industry and the funding bodies don’t often allow for it, but it was very important for us to represent the communities properly, and Sophie Hyde and Closer Productions were a key part of allowing us to do that and creating space from deadlines.’

Representing and Advocating for Children

Newell met Hyde at a Q&A screening of her previous documentary feature, Gaby Baby (2015). Hyde was moderating the session, and the two filmmakers hit it off immediately, both sharing the fact of being children of gay families. Representing children of those communities with sensitivity and accuracy was a key impetus for Gaby Baby, which became part of the national conversation leading to the legalisation of gay marriage.

Now, In My Blood it Runs looks set to become part of the push towards raising the minimum age of incarceration of Australian children from 10 to 14, and also the transformation of the education system for Indigenous kids. Dujuan, the boy at the heart of the film, at 12 years old was the youngest speaker to address the United Nations Human Rights Commission about the issue of child incarceration. Right now, aged 14, he’s on his way to accompany the film to Canberra, where it’s being screened to politicians on both sides of the fence. Being part of the documentary has no doubt changed his life and chances.

In a shocking statistic shown in the documentary, 100 per cent of the children incarcerated in the Northern Territory at the time of filming were Indigenous, with some as young as 10. Dujuan narrowly escapes this fate, thanks mainly to his proactive family sending him back to country, where we see him fishing, swimming, hunting and bonding with his father.

‘In every other western country the age of legal incarceration is 14,’ says Newell. ‘That’s the international human rights standard. And when we screen it in Parliament and around the country, we want people to see that resources should be put into Indigenous housing and upstream models of education instead of putting it into the justice system.’

In some excruciating and eye-opening scenes in the film we see Dujuan in the classroom, with various teachers failing to keep his attention. He plays pranks and runs away from school, an unsurprising fact given that the material he’s taught is either completely irrelevant to his day to day life, or outright disrespectful to a history of First Nations dispossession.

Newell says there is incredible work being done by teachers across the territory, and she never wanted to criticise individual teachers or schools, but wants to change the system at large. ‘I come from a family of teachers and I’d love to be making a film about how tricky it is to be a teacher working in this space without the support that they should be getting on a systems level to be teaching in a culturally safe way.’ What she hopes is that, ‘people watching the film can see beyond individual teachers or schools and see this as a systems issue, with how we talk about history in this country, and also how the education system could be adjusted for schools and teachers to be able to do their job better.’

Australia lags about 30 years behind other many countries in its First Nations led education, according to Newell, who cites New Zealand, Hawaii, some parts of Canada and the US as examples of places doing it better. Indigenous kids here, she says, ‘just want what other children in Australia have which is to have their first culture taught and prioritised in their education.’

Supporting the film with Impact Strategies

Asked whether she always intended to make documentaries with social effect, Newell says, ‘I think most documentary filmmakers are attracted to the form because there’s an opportunity for social change through story.’

The job of impact producer barely existed five years ago, and now it’s a key role on any documentary with purpose. It wasn’t until Newell was introduced to the Good Pitch model in 2016 with Shark Island and Documentary Australia Foundation, that she realised, ‘Not only could you make the film, but you could also support it with impact strategies.’ She credits ‘the amazing contribution of Alex Kelly, our impact producer, who has worked on campaigns like Ngapartji Ngapartji, where they achieved an Indigenous language policy in Canberra. Having that thought leadership on our own impact campaign was very important.’

Read more: Hire an impact producer, change the world

With impact partners that include Amnesty International, the Australian Human Rights Commission and World Vision, the ‘Change Goals’ for In My Blood It Runs are set out clearly on its website, with clear calls to action for interested viewers. This is the world of documentaries that set their sights further than festival screenings and awards. On a clearly pragmatic level, it’s a key way to build audiences and extend the life of a film project.

Asked for any final advice for young filmmakers, Newell says: ‘The most important thing is to trust your intuition and your moral code of ethics when you’re making documentaries. Don’t be afraid of doing things differently from the way the status quo tells us to do them.’

For her thoughts on the big issues facing Australia’s documentary filmmakers, here’s a great little interview with Screen Australia:

In My Blood It Runs is in national release from 20 February 2020.

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New Year, New Action for Transformation

A lot of people have messaged me saying “the fires have really rocked me. I’m angry and I want real action on climate but what can I DO?” Here are some initial ideas to get you started.

Please note this article is not about how to respond to these immediate fires, it’s some more long term ideas. I also haven’t included divestment, eco transport, banking ethically etc but those kind of actions are fairly easy to find on campaign sites.

I think what we need now is twofold:

strong community adaptation and resilience and
a powerful movements of movements to challenge the planet wreckers and put an urgent end to fossil fuels and extraction.

Firstly you don’t have to drop what you’re doing; you can start where you are with what you have; use your skills and influence your own networks, friends and workplaces.

If we are realistic about climate change it’s clear we need to transform everything about our economy and energy systems so every industry and much of our infrastructure needs to change; you can influence the areas you know and care about.

In terms of supporting campaigns maybe you are great at research, brilliant with excel spreadsheets, an ace cook, have rope and climbing skills, have first aid training, can play music, are good at writing and can put together media releases or up for direct action: whatever you can do, movements need!

If you haven’t joined an activist group before you might be shy or have some funny ideas about who you might encounter if you get involved. I reckon what you will find is ordinary people just like you who are trying to figure out ways to make things better. You can also find a place for the kind of skills and interests you have; direct action, protest, corporate campaigning, research and policy, art and culture, you name it, we need it!

Secondly this is not just about you, a single person and your choices and actions; this is about US, all of us and what WE can do. Wherever you can connect up with other people in your town, industry, family, workplace, sports club and start organising. Individual consumer thinking won’t get us out of this mess so let’s try and shift to thinking and acting collectively. Networks of networks, movements of movements – system change.

This is about US, all of us and what WE can do. Together we can do so much!

Here are just a few ideas.

- Support First Nations campaigns: by donating or volunteering or partnering and most importantly amplifying and sharing their work and lifting up the voices, solutions and needs of Indigenous communities this is central to climate justice on this continent

- Donate to frontline organisations and grassroots groups: they are often struggling for funding but also often have deepest roots and have biggest impact in their communities

- Research how climate change impacts the most vulnerable: homeless folks, those in poverty with poor housing, people with disabilities and work with those communities to develop support plans

- Get informed: research and read up on climate change, climate justice, social change and transition plans like the Green New Deal. Don’t do this on your own, set up reading groups and watch and listening parties to debrief, discuss and plan

- Plan for local resilience: meet your neighbours and build a community resilience project and disaster preparedness plan with the streets and properties nearby

- Campaign against extraction: join up with an existing campaign in your region or community that is working to keep fossil fuels in the ground especially coal, oil and gas

- Run for government: run for local, state or federal government on an anti fossil fuels and pro community resilience platform – most of us are shy about this idea esp LGBTIQ people, women and young people but we really need more people taking real leadership in our governments

- Join (or start) a community garden and research food security in your region

- Join an anti racism campaign, whether antifa or in support of asylum seekers. Border politics are going to amp up as climate impacts increase

- Put on a resilience festival and engage local authors, poets and musicians to perform and create new stories for your communities

My love and solidarity to you all as we process, grieve, get angry, feel despair and then, ORGANISE!

Republished on The Commons

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