Maya Newell’s new documentary, In My Blood It Runs, tells the story of Dujuan, a ten-year-old Aboriginal healer growing up in Mparntwe (Alice Springs).
It’s an intimate portrayal of what life is like for young First Nations people in the Northern Territory and the challenges they face trying to navigate an education system that sets them up to fail. For Dujuan, he’s caught between two realities—his home life, where he spends time on country with his grandmother and learns their traditional language, Arrente, and his life at school, where he struggles with the English-based curriculum. Made in close collaboration with Arrernte and Garrwa advisors and Dujuan and his family, Newell’s film stresses the importance of First Nations-led education in places like Alice Springs and how its absence has a profound effect on Aboriginal juvenile detention statistics.
It’s raw, honest, and at times quite confronting—but for Dujuan, it’s the only life he knows. On the eve of its Australian release, I spoke with Newell about In My Blood It Runs, and why its message is so important.
Hi Maya. Just to paint a bit of background—how did this film come about?
So, it’s kind of funny because I filmed this over about four years, but the film sits on about a decade of relationships with Arrernte mob in the desert. I had the privilege of being invited by Arrernte Elders to make films at this organisation called Akeyulerrre Healing Centre about the empowering work they are doing to educate their children in language and culture and identity. And then I met Dujuan maybe fours years ago at an inter-generational camp, where healers from all different ages come to sit and teach young children about the powers they’ve been given on their country and from their Elders.
What drew you to him?
He’s kind of like the doctor in the family, and he’s just this exuberant, witty, wise young man who really wanted a film made about him. He just has this beautiful poeticism in the way he describes the world around him. I thought he could be a beautiful conduit for wider Australia who have so much to learn about what it means to be an Aboriginal kid today.
What was it like working on something like this, particularly as a non-Indigenous filmmaker?
Being very aware of the politics of representation, and the misappropriation of First Nations stories throughout history, and being very aware of me being a non-Indigenous person, we created this model of consultation around the project. It was led by Rachel Edwardson, one of the producers who is a First Nations woman, and she invited Larissa Behrendt, an Aboriginal producer, to be part of the core creative team, along with Arrernte Elder Felicity Hayes and most importantly, the family in the film to join on as the core partners. We made sure that everyone knew that at the end of the day, it was their final decision that would be honoured with what went in and out of the film. And I think that the result of that is so much of the style and intimacy that you see in the film.
Was that a new approach to the way you make films?
Well, with the making of Gayby Baby [Maya’s 2015 documentary], that was a film that also obviously puts children’s voices front and centre, but that film was also my story, having grown up with two mums. And so I suppose I understood the power of representation and how important it is to feel like a film authentically portrays your own life. With this, that leadership from our First Nations producers was integral to this model and the Indigenous content of the film.
After filming for so long, how did you know when to call it and begin the editing process?
I think there was a natural arc of the timeline of the story. We started filming when the allegations came out about Don Dale on Four Corners about youth detention and torture of young people in detention like Dylan Voller. We were filming when that happened—we were with Dujuan and his family watching that news story, and the film sort of contours the Royal Commission into juvenile detention and child welfare in the Northern Territory. So that created a timeline that seemed quite organic, but also there’s just a point in the story where you feel like there’s a natural resolve. But there were many times when I thought, ‘We might not even have a film,’ because Dujuan’s story took us all by surprise. It was very heavy—he was faced with really full-on issues and we were so lucky that his family found a solution that worked for him.
I really love the handheld footage Dujuan shoots as he interviews his mother and grandmother in the film. Was that something you envisioned early on or did it happen organically?
It definitely happened organically. Dujuan is really interested in filmmaking and he’d often only let me interview him after he’d interviewed me first. There’s a whole other film which is B-roll of Dujuan’s version of the film [Laughs]. But we wanted to incorporate that, and his interviews throughout the film. He asked THE best questions as well.
I frantically Googled for updates on Dujuan and his family after watching and was so happy to see him speaking at the UN last year. There’s a lot to get angry and disheartened about in this film, but I feel like Dujuan’s story is one of hope and resilience, too.
I think that’s really important. It’s easy to finish a film on a dramatic turn, but in actual fact, it’s Dujuan and his family that have to live with this story, you know, so this needs to be a story of hope and resilience. Also, you can feel quite downtrodden after finishing watching the film, especially with some of those statistics—like the fact that 100% of children in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal—but I think the upside is the campaign we’re creating around the film means that it’s Dujuan’s own grandmothers who are leading the change. They have the solution, which is just about the only thing that the Australian government has not tried: Listening to Aboriginal people and resourcing and funding what they have been asking for centuries. They’re asking for what every child in Australia already gets, which is an education in their first language and culture—it’s very basic stuff.
Yeah, this film really shows just how severely the Australian school system and curriculum fails First Nations people. At one point, a teacher is even reading from The Australia Book, which was first published in 1952 and written by a white woman. I couldn’t believe it—the teacher even commented on what a ‘great sailor’ Captain Cook was.
Yeah, and it’s still in publication. Captain Cook is the ‘hero’ who ‘discovered’ Australia, and I think it’s a really important scene in the film because you are experiencing that lesson from the perspective of a ten-year-old child who knows his history, and as Dujuan articulates in the film, he says, ‘The history that we’re told at school, that’s for white people. It’s not like the history that we learn at home.’ So if he can see the mismatch between truth and the grand narrative that is consistently perpetuated through our government and mainstream media, then we have a problem.
In My Blood It Runs is in Australian cinemas now. Find a screening here.