Review: The Active Listening of ‘In My Blood It Runs’

The Don Dale Youth Detention Centre scandal casts a long shadow over In My Blood It Runs, the observational documentary from Australian filmmaker Maya Newell, made in collaboration with Arrernte and Garrwa families and communities in the Northern Territory. The scandal, which was broken in the 2016 episode of Four Corners (aptly) titled ‘Australia’s Shame’, revealed footage of the wardens repeatedly abusing the inmates in a variety of humiliating and violent ways which I would rather not relitigate here. The report was a damning reminder that 21st century Australia has not made nearly as progress in tapering, let alone fully stopping, institutional discrimination and violence against our Indigenous population.

For the family of Dujuan, the boy at the heart of the film, the report is nothing short of harrowing.

Dujuan is struggling in class, he’s falling behind the other students, which means he’s not getting the teacher attention he deserves. In response to the neglect, he’s developed a proclivity for skipping school. His mother, grandmother and aunties have seen this cycle before. They know underperformance at school leads to eventual expulsion, and that expulsion often leads to criminal behaviour, which in turn leads to incarceration. It’s a vicious cycle: one in which many Indigenous Australians are caught within. Dujuan’s family are especially concerned for him because he has just turned ten, the minimum age at which a minor can be incarcerated.

From this tension Newell builds a documentary that is equal parts incisive and empathetic, a tête-à-tête about a Western education system that prevents Indigenous communities from succeeding and then punishes them for failing; that then politely asks if non-Indigenous audiences could collectively muster up the will to advocate for serious actionable change. Dujuan proves the perfect muse for the project. He’s got a precocious streak that makes him undeniably charming: the film begins with him filming his mother on their home camera, no doubt mimicking Newell’s filming of him. But he’s also at a point in his life where his optimistic edge is becoming sanded away by the onset of a world-weary cynicism. 

Roots of this cynicism are kindled in parallel classroom scenes, early on in the film. The first sees one of Dujuan’s white teachers reading to the class, The Australia Book by Eve Pownall. It’s a book that is immediately familiar to many Australians, a book that was read in my own primary school classes. It also, notably, erases Indigenous people as historical owners of the land on its first page, unsurprising for a book written in 1952, a fact that does not forgive its inclusion in the modern classroom. 

Newell contrasts this scene with the next, where we see another white teacher fumble her way through a reading of a book about the Dreaming. It’s a halting, uncertain rendition: the book has clearly been included in the curriculum as a tokenistic gesture. The teacher interrupts herself to ask the class if they understand what she’s talking about. When they confirm they do, she responds: “I’m glad, because I’m a bit confused about The Spirit and the Dreaming”, as if it is not her job to understand what she is teaching. Dujuan, for his part, has his hand raised throughout the second reading: he knows the Dreaming better than she does and is desperate to correct her, but his energy is misconstrued as disruption. When he’s told to quiet down he slumps into himself, we can see he’s already jaded enough to know that his teacher’s ‘sympathy’, like the sympathy of so many non-Indigenous Australians, is fruitless to speak up against. His awareness wards away the Hollywood brand white guilt, the Hidden Figures and Green Books’ with their call for the acknowledgement of racism and not much more, and forces us to instead interrogate our emotional reaction and then seek out actionable solutions.

It’s little surprise that In My Blood It Runs is such a deftly constructed object. This is not Newell’s first brush with representation politics: her first documentary, 2015’s Gayby Baby, followed children raised by same-sex parents, and went on to become an instrumental text in Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. In an interview with Melbourne International Film Festival, Newell spoke about how that film taught her the importance of making sure “that those who are in front of the camera have control of the way they are portrayed”. As a non-Indigenous filmmaker,Newell worked hard to involve Dujuan and his family in every step of the creative process. Every family member is credited as some kind of producer, advisor, or director. The family was also given final cut privileges and the power to opt out of the process at any point. The choice is not just a simple ethical matter — it underpins the documentary’s power, of Indigenous Australians reclaiming control over their own narrative,

As a film, In My Blood It Runs could be described as the cinematic equivalent of active listening. A standout example of this is when Dujuan brings home his report card. The results are disheartening: he’s scored in the lowest bracket of every academic area. Dujuan stalks off to his room, and once alone, begins to cry. It’s clear he wants to succeed but feels incompatible with Western parameters of academia. That Dujuan feels comfortable enough to cry in front of Newell while she is filming speaks volumes. And by capturing that little moment, Newell is able to give the statistics that one in every two Indigenous students in the Northern Territory score below the minimum literacy average, their emotional reality: Dujuan would be considered among them. 

Dujuan is obviously intelligent, though, as the documentary depicts. His brand of intelligence is social; he’s becoming aware of class and status, and how they create inequality. In his voice over interviews he asks why his family can’t live in the big houses? Or why the government is so involved in the goings-ons Alice Springs’ Indigenous community?  Dujuan is developing a host of talents too. He’s trilingual (speaking Aranda, Garrwa, and English) and tricultural. He takes great pride in the use of Ngangkere, a healing practice which involves him physically drawing pain from ailed people through motion and contact, feeling it within himself, and then pouring that felt pain into the creation of bush medicines. He takes frequent trips into surrounding bushland to forage for bush medicine ingredients, explaining what each is to an offscreen Newell as he goes. He’s become so proficient at Ngangkere that he is the preferred practitioner within not only his family, but the broader Arrernte community of Alice Springs.

But none of these talents are recognised by Western learning standards. The view held by the teachers is that he’s failing school, but in reality, the Australian schooling system is failing him. This failure takes on additional gravity when one considers that at the time of filming 100 percent of incarcerated children in the Northern Territory identified as Indigenous.

Late in the film, one of Dujuans older family members sits down with him and recounts the story of her teenage years — her dropping out of high school, teen pregnancy, bouts with substance abuse, and incarceration. Her intent is clear: to prevent Dujuan from making the same mistakes she made, and Newell edits with the solemnity the exchange deserves. There are a dozen other moments like this one and Newell weaves them together, illustrating the many failures of the system. Never do these moments become overbearing or feel like Newell is placing her hand on the scale; In My Blood It Runs has a political agenda, but it is on account of its subject wanting their views to be heard. These are thoughts and feelings that existed long before Newell decided to film them — the only difference is she’s lent them an ear. 

And what Dujuan and his family want to say comes through resoundingly clear: no one is more aware, nor more disillusioned, with the system than they are, because they are the people it was ‘meant’ to help. Australia’s past colonial practices, which saw the destruction of an egregious amount of Indigenous culture, are a particular point of anger for Dujuan and his family, because they can see the parallels between them and current government’s paternalistic policies, a point that Newell drives home with intercut archival footage. When Dujuan’s mother receives a letter from child protective services threatening to remove him from her care should his marks continue to fail, Newell pivots to footage about the Stolen Generations. “The children are being gently led toward our culture”, says a soothing English voice, though the reality is there was nothing gentle about it then, nor is there now. 

The practice underpinning In My Blood It Runs is the key to its many successes. It’s a film that avoids becoming symptomatic of the reductive aid it is so critical of, because it understands that help is useless if you never listen in the first place. The neat stacking of archival, home-camera, and professional footage to illustrate points like this speak to the sublimity of Newell’s film. Through a portrait of a single boy, the documentary encompasses the injustices of Australia at large. 

In My Blood It Runs screens from April 17-19 as part of Virtual Cinema experiences. More details here.

**********

Josh Sorensen is a writer, student, and bona fide human from Wollongong. He is a staff writer for Film Daze, and runs a “literature” “blog” called Manic Media. In his free time he can be found ranting about how good Paddington 2 is on twitter @namebrandjosh.  

Josh Sorensen

Josh is "queering" the "narrative", one rant at a time.