In My Blood It Runs: a beautiful, intimate and compellingly frank film
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In My Blood It Runs: a beautiful, intimate and compellingly frank film

"We tell our stories in paintings, dance, song and film," says Arrernte leader William Tilmouth at a launch event for the release of In My Blood It Runs. "This film shows us that consultation and collaboration work."

The film in question is a beautiful, intimate and compellingly frank film told through the eyes of a 10-year-old Arrernte/Garrwa boy, Dujuan. The documentary provides an object lesson in the failures of mainstream education for First Nations kids – and along the way upends the conventions of documentary-making itself.

Rather than the filmmaker descending on the subjects as the so-called "objective observer", In My Blood It Runs was a deeply collaborative process involving a mixed First Nations and non-Indigenous production team – Rachel Naŋinaaq Edwardson, Professor Larissa Behrendt and Sophie Hyde – along with Arrernte elders and the families and community represented on screen, and a non-Indigenous director, Maya Newell (Gayby Baby).

Through the eyes of 10-year-old Dujuan (pictured with mother Megan Hoosan)  In My Blood It Runs documents the failings of mainstream education for First Nations kids.

Through the eyes of 10-year-old Dujuan (pictured with mother Megan Hoosan) In My Blood It Runs documents the failings of mainstream education for First Nations kids.Credit:Maya Newell

"Both parties wanted to do it," Tilmouth says. "Dujuan wanted a film about him and the film team had to give away any prescribed story that they had to allow families to have ownership and control and to tell them how they should be doing it. The process gave them agency and produced a very strong film. As a result, this film resonates with many people out there, good-willed people who see this film and realise – how blind am I? Why didn't I see that? I am quite proud of it actually."

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"We are sending a message to Australia about how hard it is for our kids in central Australia as well as in other states," says Dujuan's grandmother, Carol Turner, in the film. "The curriculum is written the way white people want to teach our children and there is so little about who they are as Aboriginal people. With this film we want to make people see what's happening in a different society, our society. We hope people will understand."

Or as Felicity Hayes, Mparntwe (Alice Springs) senior traditional owner puts it: "Our children have to leave their identity at the school gate."

Dujuan with filmmaker Maya Newell

Dujuan with filmmaker Maya NewellCredit:Maya Newell

The process of making the film was painstaking, starting with the question of whether it should be made by this team at all. Newell had been working with Children's Ground and Akeyulerre, The Healing Centre – two Arrernte-led NGOs committed to taking children out on country with their families, grounding them in culture and first language, and supporting elders to pass on their knowledge – for a decade.

Her work had chiefly been making educational films to preserve knowledge and culture for future generations, to use within the families, but one day Dujuan said to her: "You should make a film about me!" It was the beginning of a long conversation.

Tilmouth and Turner, along with Arrernte elders and family members Margaret Kemarre Turner, Mrs Abbott Perulle, Amelia Turner, Megan Hoosan, and Jane Vadiveloo, sat down with Newell and Dujuan's extended family and started by asking questions. Should we make this film? Who should make it? How could we do it? "Taking into account the history of misappropriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories," Newell says. "And being very conscious of me not being an Indigenous person."

Eventually the answer to that first question – Should we? – was "yes", but then came a whole lot of other questions about "how?"

Bringing together the relationships and expertise of Children's Ground and existing Screen Australia protocols, and drawing on leadership from other collaborative projects, mostly driven by artists of colour and First Nations initiatives, Newell, the production team and the families developed a model of working specific to the story they wanted to tell that placed the agency of Dujuan and his family front and centre. Workshops continued throughout filming on process, style, story structure, themes, messaging and duty of care.

"It was a very hard but also very rewarding process to go through," Newell says. "Documentary making tends to very much celebrate the auteur, but anything we achieved is built on the back of the family, community and advisers' willingness to take agency in the story and the process, and guide us to the understandings we needed to be able to work alongside them instead of over them."

There is a feeling in the film industry – and in audiences' minds – that if a filmmaker gives control to those onscreen then you'll never see "the truth" or tell a truly dramatic story. "But for us," says Newell, "the opposite was true. We were only able to tell an authentic, nuanced story by sharing agency with the families and advisers."

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The question of who gets to tell whose story is complicated and important, says Newell. "First Nations people have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to tell their own stories. There's a long history of being misappropriated: land, culture, story," she says. "On this film, we wanted to make sure we were not continuing that misappropriation."

Newell says it was because the team was guided by the family and community this felt like the right approach for this particular story. "But this film does not speak for other films," she stresses, "and is absolutely not a green light for non-Indigenous filmmakers to work in this space."

In My Blood It Runs is airs at 9.30pm on Sunday, July 5, on ABC.

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