By now, you’ve probably heard of the documentary In My Blood It Runs.
The film introduces Dujuan, an Aboriginal boy of Arrernte/Garrwa descent, at 10 years old – the same age of criminal responsibility in Australia. Like lots of other kids his age, Dujuan is charming and cheeky, testing the boundaries of his family’s rules and exploring his own independence. Unlike most other kids, Dujuan has a superpower – his Ngangkere – a healing power inherited from his great grandfather when he passed away, and the land. Dujuan is a strong hunter and he can speak three languages. And while Dujuan is having difficulty in the western education system, where he is misunderstood, he thrives on his weekly trips with his family and community on Country.
I was lucky to speak with the film’s director, Maya Newell, as well as William Tilmouth, an Arrernte man and Founding Chair of Children’s Ground, who worked as a key advisor on the film. We spoke about how the film came to be, the close creative collaboration between the filmmakers and the families featured, and the importance of agency and ownership by First Nations people over their own stories.
Hi Maya + William – thank you both for taking the time to speak with us. Maya, Was there a particular moment or event that motivated you to make this important documentary?
MAYA NEWELL: I suppose there are lots of moments really, but I think the important thing to say is that the film didn’t just sprout up after one moment or just meeting the family once and wanting to make a film. It sits on the bed of about a decade of relationships, and me personally being invited by Arrernte Elders and an organisation called Akeyulerre Healing Centre in Alice Springs and Children’s Ground, which are two Arrernte led organisations that support children, families and communities to stay connected to culture and have access to their homeland, and continue that important process of passing down knowledge to the next generation.
Over those years of working alongside families and getting to know them and going back and forth from Alice Springs and making a series of short films, I realised there was an important bigger story. It felt like we were making the same short films over and over again about this hidden education system, this system that has been going for 65,000 years and continues today, and that is the language and culture and identity of people that is so undervalued and not often recognised within the mainstream education system, yet is so fundamental to children’s wellbeing. I had a beautiful opportunity to learn over those years through the generosity of Elders and families.
I suppose the moment that really flipped this into considering making a longer version film for the general public was when I met Dujuan on a Ngangkere (traditional healing) camp. [Dujuan] was about 8, and bounded up and started telling me about how he got his power, his Ngangkere, from his great grandfather when he passed away, and also from the land. He was so articulate and poetic in the way he confidently described this super power that he had, and he really wanted a film made about him. So we went back with all those people we’d known for a long time and just asked those hard questions about how you would make a film like this, and if was right to make a film like this, and what was the process and the ethics to put in place to be sure that the families would really be driving it themselves.
We see in the film that Dujuan has incredible support from his family in terms of learning his language, his culture and connecting to Country. Why is that so important, and particularly for kids of Dujuan’s age?
WILLIAM TILMOUTH: First and foremost his identity will remain intact. The foundation of his family’s culture, language, Country and identity are very strong, whereas with me, I was subject to the assimilation process and I was subject to the Stolen Generation. And my culture, my language, and my identity all got fragmented. I was asking myself, ‘Who am I? Where do I belong? And where do I fit in this world?’. That’s something that everybody asks themselves somewhere along the track, and when you don’t have answers you are burdened with thoughts that you really don’t belong.
First Nations people’s stories have been historically mistold and misrepresented in this country. How did you go about making this beautiful and sensitive documentary in a way that was respectful and true to Dujuan and his family?
WT: It’s a credit to the filmmakers to recognise that this story belongs in the families, and in the people, and at the end of the day they set aside a lot of their professionalism and egos.
As you can see there’s no scriptwriting, this was all done as is, as people lived it. And to do that, it’s an unconventional way of making a documentary. It’s out of the box and it worked because these people were allowed to have agency and ownership in regards to how the film was made, what was in there, and what was not in there. Every step of the way families were totally involved.
Historically, Indigenous films are always about the sensationalising, the romantic image of Aboriginal people in regards to how films are projected, and this one is devoid of any of that image. It turned out to be one of the best films I’ve ever seen in terms of how our people feel about it after. The repercussions of [the filmmakers’] behaviour will allow the film to live for a long time.
And how was this collaborative creative process realised?
MN: We had big workshops with the whole community and also a board of advisors of which William and other people are part of, and then with Dujuan’s family. We had workshops before we even picked up cameras to think about the messaging – what they wanted the film to be about, what they didn’t want the film to be about, and then we watched rushes, edits, we talked about events and how things were going along the way throughout the many years. And those workshops continued through to our impact phase where families were deciding what goals they wanted us to work on as we released the film, which is the stage we are at now.
We really learned from and researched previous projects that came before us, often initiatives led by artists of colour and other First Nations filmmakers who are really leading in the space of collaboration and co-design. We took a lot of that knowledge from the incredible leadership of our First Nations producers, Felicity Hayes, Professor Larissa Behrendt and Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson. Rachel brought her personal and professional expertise as a First Nations Iñupiat woman from Alaska to develop and form the model of consultation that was right for this particular film.
It’s wonderful to be able to direct audiences to learn more about the importance of First Nations-led education. The importance of juvenile justice reform and raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 from 10 which is absolutely ridiculous. And also, more broadly, to try to influence an end to racism in Australia, which is a big goal, but we’re working towards it.
With so many more eyes on the film, what is an important key message or learning you hope people take away from ‘In My Blood It Runs’?
MN: I think that the key message that has been consistent from Dujuan’s family, their takeaway, Megan (Dujuan’s mother) who says, ‘I just want Australians to know that we love and care about our kids’. I think that’s a simple message but a powerful one in the current context of Black Lives Matter and still the ongoing removal of children from their families and the state of human rights abuses in our juvenile justice systems.
Really the message that William has drummed into me for years and years whenever we had a problem of not knowing how to cut a scene or approach a problem that came up, and he would continually say, ‘Remember it’s about the agency of Aboriginal families to have control of their own lives’, and I think we see that in the film because everything that works for Dujuan is a solution that is derived from his family, not from the institutions that are meant to uplift him.
WT: Children’s Ground [the Arrernte-led organisation of which William is the Founding Chair] advocates for system reform in regards to how we educate and look after our children from birth through to the later teen years. Ultimately at the end of the day, we are asking for system reform with regards to how Aboriginal people are treated because the same tired old methods are just not working. Every year it’s a variation of the past. It’s draconian, it’s primitive, it’s really outdated. The powers that be need to rethink what they’re doing.
What we’re doing at Children’s Ground, and as the film depicts, there is another way of being. Give the family agency, let them find a solution, and support them in that solution. And that’s exactly what happened here. Doing the same old things time and time again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
In My Blood It Runs is available to stream on ABC iView now, until August 4th, 2020.
Learn more about the people involved with making In My Blood It Runs and follow its journey here.
In My Blood It Runs is not just a film, it’s also a campaign for change. Learn more about how you can support the solutions guided by the Arrernte and Garrwa families here.