The Saturday Paper profile – Alex Kelly

A conversation with film and theatre producer Alex Kelly about making the documentaries Island of Hungry Ghosts and In My Blood It Runs, and working with Naomi Klein on This Changes Everything. By Kirsten Krauth.

Alex Kelly is 34 weeks pregnant, reclining on a small stage the shape of a four-poster bed. As we speak, the lights dim and glare, and she directs ambient mist that surrounds us in sound and smoke. She’s in pre-production for a new show she’s created, The Things We Did Next, a play set in 2029, when “climate impacts are a daily reality”. Through the play’s format of a chat show, in which writers and thinkers “[improvise] a future version of themselves”, she hopes to “move beyond the binary of dystopia and utopia”.

Kelly’s lifelong involvement in social movements began when she discovered zines – on feminism, politics or alternative music – as a teenager. Growing up on a sheep farm with a mother heavily involved in the union movement, she felt a sense of isolation, but she says zines “opened up a world of, ‘Oh, there are heaps of other people that think like me.’ Experiences of solidarity, collectivity and community felt very deeply enriching and I’ve always gravitated to that since. I find an enormous amount of richness in being in the world in that way.”

After working extensively with Indigenous communities in Alice Springs on projects for Big hART, she received a Churchill Fellowship to research other practitioners exploring the space between art, story and campaigning. She discovered a new field, impact-producing, which involved “mapping campaign strategy across film distribution”: how a film goes into the world, who the audiences are and what producers would like those audiences to do after they’ve seen the film. The fellowship led her to work closely with Naomi Klein on This Changes Everything.

While Klein wrote a book, her partner, Avi Lewis, directed a documentary by the same name, its release culminating in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. “That project had a very clear core value, that books and films don’t change the world, social movements do,” Kelly says. “The thesis of that project was that climate change is … an economic problem and we don’t all have to drop everything [to] become climate activists.” It became about transforming every sector – immigration, education, health, agriculture – and banding together as a coalition. She went to 12 countries with Klein, “trying to bring people together across different social movements to talk about how they could build power”.

Two documentaries that Kelly has produced recently are intensely moving and poetic accounts. Island of the Hungry Ghosts uncovers the experience of asylum seekers and those who work with them on Christmas Island, while In My Blood It Runs centres on a 10-year-old Arrernte/Garrwa boy, Dujuan, negotiating his local culture alongside that imposed on him at school. When I ask Kelly what draws her to projects, she says she looks for “the intersection between ‘let’s think strategically about messages’ [and] engaging the heart by telling a story and inviting [viewers] into a world that they may not see”. She adds, “You can’t work backwards and say we’re going to make a film to make people feel x; you have to make a film that is still its own piece of art and follows the poetry of what emerges.”

For In My Blood It Runs, along with a festival and cinema release, Kelly and her team are organising screenings to the Attorney-General’s Department in Canberra, the UN in Geneva, the Northern Territory Parliament and state education ministers, “to highlight the importance of First Nations-led education”. But broader issues are also at stake, such as raising the age of criminal responsibility – currently 10 – across Australia. “If you’re 11 and you commit a crime, you go into the justice system and you could end up in Don Dale, whereas in most countries it’s 14, or even 16,” she says. “If you commit a crime before that age [overseas] then you would receive a greater level of support to address why you might have committed a crime. Australia doesn’t have that safety net for young people.” For Dujuan and his family, credited as collaborating directors on the documentary, changing this legislation was a key component of what they “wanted the film to do in the world”.

The Things We Did Next is in its early stages but is propelled by all the threads running through Kelly’s work in documentary film and impact-producing. While distribution and content matter, Kelly is always thinking ahead to what the audience will do after they’ve watched her films. And for her next move? She’s interested in the possibilities for cultural and narrative shifts. “When I think about climate change … I’m more interested in thinking about how we look after each other as the storms get worse.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as “Activist listening”. Subscribe here.

Kirsten Krauth 
is a writer and editor. Her novel Almost a Mirror, shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize, will be published by Transit Lounge in 2020.

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Dumbo Feather – How Systems Marginalise

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:

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The Gate review – In My Blood It Runs

By Andrew Parker, at Hot Docs

A wholly original and impactful look at growing up Indigenous in Australia today, Maya Newell’s equally artful and emotional In My Blood It Runs is one of the standout world premieres at this year’s festival.

In My Blood It Runs follows Dujuan Hoosan, a ten year old boy of Arrernte and Garrwa descent, living in Northern Australia with his mother, Megan. Fascinated and energized by his Aboriginal roots, the fun loving Dujuan might have a future as a spiritual healer among his people. In his community, Dujuan comes to life, but in his decidedly colonialist school, he’s failing, with teachers openly mocking indigenous ways of life in the classroom. Dujuan grows sad and frustrated, with his failing grades taking a toll on his self esteem. He starts going out late at night, getting into trouble, and skipping school, leading himself down a dark path during a time when heavily armed police presence in indigenous communities is increasing and the percentage of Aboriginal youth in juvenile detention centres is a frightening 100%.

Crediting Dujuan and his family members as co-directors and collaborators, Newell (Gayby Baby) lets her indigenous subjects largely tell their own stories. Newell provides them with cameras to capture their everyday lives and ask each other questions that they might hesitate to answer if they were posed by outsiders. This approach gives In My Blood It Runs a pronounced and confident degree of authenticity. It’s a great looking film, and Newell and her team have done an outstanding job of assembling such a culturally specific and politically relevant story, but it wouldn’t be as impactful without the direct participation of Dujuan’s family to guide it.

In My Blood It Runs isn’t only a stark, but frequently loving and hopeful look at the plight of Indigenous peoples in Northern Australia, but also an examination of how negative educational reinforcement takes a toll on young people. It’s impossible to not feel great sadness for Dujuan, which makes his turn towards a bleaker future all the more heart-wrenching to behold.

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