Type
Essay
Category
Activism @ the Margins
Film

The Australian government is not listening: education justice and remote Indigenous futures

It’s nighttime in the desert, moments before the opening credits of the acclaimed feature documentary In My Blood It Runs. We’re in a dusty yard enclosed in cyclone-wire fencing with 10-year-old multi-lingual Arrernte/Garrwa healer Dujuan Hoosan. He’s running joyfully, a firework in one hand. The danger and beauty of marking presence in the darkness with explosive devices is captivating. The hand-held camera tracking his exuberance is enchanted and enchanting. Giggles bubble into the open night.

The dreamscape glimmers, warm with freedom; perhaps also a familiar place or screen memory. Fragile spark trails thread into archival images of central Australian desert men’s ceremony, and self-determination protests. Dujuan’s voiceover explains in English – I was born a little Aboriginal kid. That means that I had a memory, a memory about Aboriginals. I just felt something, a memory. History, in my blood it runs. Archival megaphony throws back political fire, grassroots history echoing into its own future and setting the baseline and patterning claims of the film: We want our ceremonies. We want our language. We want our stories told to our children.

In My Blood It Runs is an urgent observational essay, at once intimate and far-reaching in its social change aspirations. It’s about how the NT mainstream education system fails to meet the needs, desires and priorities of Aboriginal kids and their families. The film is consonant with other central Australian ‘survivance’ (Vizenor 2008) media made over the past four decades by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), Pintubi Anmatjere Warlpiri (PAW) Media and other regional/remote production groups.1

This new community-driven film asks audiences to look closely, and in the words of Arrernte elder Kathleen Kemarre Turner, to ‘listen deeply’ (2009) to stories of contemporary cultural lives, lived between town and bush. By putting Indigenous experience, knowledge and strategies for survival front and centre, it de-objectifies the so-called Indigenous education ‘gaps’ that whitefella politics measure in terms of attendance and completion and thence construe as intractable so-called ‘wicked problems’.

In this way it lays bare the high stakes of policy failure, and of successive governments not supporting community visions for safe lives and strong futures as a lived reality. It shares the spirit of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, produced in the same period, and the responsive ‘Imagination Declaration of the Youth Forum’ that appeared at Garma 2019.2 Notably, the film was a well-supported independent production, drawing together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal knowledges, skills, and social capital to advance anti-racism, decolonising and sovereignty aspirations.

Dujuan’s story was developed, and is largely set, in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Central Arrernte country – in a town camp, at Yipirinya School and a mainstream public school, on the streets, and out bush. In its final act it moves to the Borroloola region, 1000km to the north-east. This entire northern Australian ‘frontier’ zone is chiselled equally by colonial dispossessions, stolen generations and other ‘wild policy’ (Lea 2020) violences. Histories of Aboriginal resistance, including over 40 years of self-determination work by Aboriginal-controlled land rights, media, health, housing, arts, culture and social support organisations asserting sovereignty have also shaped the cultural landscape and set priorities for its futures.

The Arrernte families at the centre of the film were, for many years, centrally involved in the independent community-controlled Catholic Church-supported Irrkerlantye Learning Centre, art workshop and chapel on the south-east side of town. Family elders who advised the production and appear on screen have also long been leaders in language and culture maintenance and promotion work through Central Australian community art and women’s centres and organisations such as IAD (Institute for Aboriginal Development), CAAMA and more recently Children’s Ground and the temporary Apmere Angkentye-kenhe project.

Dujuan’s mother Megan and grandmother Carol were centrally involved in the 2003 CAAMA Productions feature documentary Beyond Sorry (dir. David Vadiveloo) about the return to country of one of Dujuan’s senior relations, stolen as a young woman and accepted back into the family by his great-grandmother/senior advisor to the new film, Kwementjaye Abbott. Maya Newell came to know Dujuan and his family across a decade of work with the Mparntwe-based Arrernte Healing Centre Akeyulerre. The production rests on trust embodied in these relationships and expresses many of these organisations’ shared community well-being and support objectives. At its heart, and against the backdrop of and some of the world’s highest youth incarceration and suicide rates and pathologizing representations of Indigenous families, the film is a deeply personal offering. In Megan’s words, I want Australians to know that we love our kids.3

In My Blood It Runs is built out of scenes revealing Dujuan’s ongoing struggles with public schooling that expects kids like him, in Arrernte Elder Felicity Haye’s words, ‘to leave their identity at the school gate’4 and his family’s attempts to keep him out of trouble across a couple of years. The film’s propositions thicken as we watch Dujuan moving in, wondering about, taking risks in, and scraping by a world structured equally by histories that marginalise, disadvantage, disempower and threaten him and by a deep cultural identity wherein his survival can, and as we are shown, will be nurtured by his dedicated family.

The story unfolds as a quietly mounting drama: will the schools reach their punitive limits? Will the streets become Dujuan’s teachers? Dujuan, stop running away, yeah? his mother Megan asks him in the film’s opening sequence, cradling him in her lap in a town camp gutter at sunset. He, in turn, is cradling a DSLR camera on which he has shot his own version of this scene, moments before, establishing him as a loving, plucky middle son and storyteller. Mainstream classrooms, teachers and their cascading rules and punishments, the film argues, are working against, rather than with, Dujuan’s vitality, perceptiveness and culturally valued capabilities. Megan and Carol, know they must divert his path away from a system that can only penalise his resistance to whitefella pedagogy. The film is as much their story as it is Dujuan’s.

This film carefully entwines first-person and the production’s multiple directorial voices. Dujuan’s voice-over narration and natural on-screen talk is composed to express what Jonathan Lear (2006) calls ‘radical hope’. His vision for a culturally empowered future is a direct refusal of the settler state’s contemporary pedagogical, epistemological and disciplinary regimes. These opposing forces structure In My Blood It Runs and inform both story and imagery. The film is paced to give audiences pauses for reflection on the paper-thin lines he treads each day.

Newell carefully positions audiences as witnesses to Dujuan observing, feeling and interpreting the many forms of power that shape his world and life, for better and worse. Early in the film we encounter Dujuan dancing on a hilltop with young mates, then gazing down at a wealthy Mparntwe (Alice Springs) neighbourhood – nice houses, nice yards, nice neighbours – and its exclusive golf course. How come this mob got clean houses and not us?5 Moving further inside his home life, we watch him working on his grandmother as an Angangkere, using his special inherited powers to see and heal her exhausted and aching head. These powers run blood deep with his felt memory of his history and identity.

In some of the film’s central sequences, we also see him at school having to look at and parrot colonial school picture-book histories of Australia. The injustice of the status quo is stark when we watch Dujuan literally struggling to locate his history in the colonial story. It simply doesn’t make sense. The history we were told at home is in language and it’s about the Aborigines, but the one back at school, that was for white people.6

Audiences that I’ve been a part of have gasped at these scenes; shocked that the imperial possession narrative and illustrations that we are shown in an ultra-close-up shot could possibly still be a primary school resource and that classroom teachers in Mparntwe could be uncritical ventriloquists of conquest narratives. Many people across the education sector have praised this revelation and the insight that an Aboriginal child’s point-of-view sequence gives to the impact of whitefella stories and pedagogy.7 Many educators across the country would, moreover, like the settler history that they are charged with teaching upended and radically revised from an Indigenous standpoint. In a wrenching scene further along, we watch Dujuan at equally close range trying to read a school report full of fails that Megan has already had to swallow. He remains disengaged, even at a long-established Aboriginal school that offers town camp kids the maximum hours of local language instruction allowed by current NT Education policy.

A third of the way into the film, Dujuan is watching television at home with his family. The self-reflexivity and narrative authority set up at the start shifts into a kind of speculative mirror work. On screen, half-naked 16-year-old Dylan Voller, imprisoned at the notorious Darwin Dondale Youth Detention Centre, is hooded and shackled to a chair. The ghastly image recalls some of the worst scenes that emerged from the US-controlled Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq during the torture scandals of the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. The Voller scandal became a lightning rod for long overdue public attention and eventually a Royal Commission into a deplorable carceral system that has for many decades violently shaped the lives of thousands of young Indigenous Australian people. I know lots of kids that got cruelled in juvenile. Everybody’s treating them like the same way they treat their enemies,8 Dujuan testifies.

The image of hooded and abused Voller unveiled the public secret of institutionalised violence that sits inside utterly unacceptable Indigenous incarceration and deaths-in-custody rates across the country, across all age sectors. One of the shocks of that image was the impossibility of the captive returning the gaze of the surveillance camera. While he is literally locked into the position of radically disempowered on-screen victim of ‘correctional services’ power, viewers become momentarily complicit in this theatre of penal mastery. People all over the world were justifiably disgusted by the possibility of this scenario. Dujuan looks wide-eyed at the brutal state force being enacted upon a possibly shackled future self. The visual short circuitry of these scenes is frightening and pivots the narrative into its eventually restorative second act.

The strictures of school discipline and punishment, and the spectres of Dondale, are potentially spirit-breaking. By holding a close focus on the penal trajectory and its cultural-familial alternatives, the film doesn’t directly address Dujuan’s structural location in a racialised welfare-dependent economic underclass. Dujuan the Angangkere envisions life otherwise. Outside of school, after sundown and away from cold media screens, the film’s attention to looking and visuality shifts therapeutically to intimate and safe fireside spaces of familial co-presence and co-sensing.

Dujuan listens attentively to his maternal elders’ cultural lessons. In the thrall of their authority and vast knowledge, we feel the gravity of these intentional spaces as both traditional and presently urgent. Despite this protective carapace of teaching and learning, Dujuan remains high-risk for state intervention that would tear him from his primary carers. Tactically, in the film’s anti-climax, they send him away to safety upstate in his father’s Garrwa country and his father’s family’s care. His Mparntwe family’s pivotal decision demonstrates their agency to save him by literally removing him from the system charged with uplifting him to its own standards of success.

The simplicity of this affirmative move is outstanding against the mass of negating decisions we observe being made for him by the state. Newell captures the magical spark of his spirit and the relief of freedom unleashed by this decision. Heading out of town, wind in his hair, Dujuan’s hands trace undulating snake-like patterns in the air. Country, story, road, or perhaps something else altogether.

An Aboriginal filmmaker friend with many years of remote community media production experience told me that, to his eyes, In My Blood … ‘is a film about that young fella and his imaginary friend’. ‘Who was he talking to?’, he asked me. My friend’s question points to the complexity of authority, authorship and address in play in this production. This film mediates many interests and envisions an array of audiences, from local community to policy makers. The production was a collective effort of a large team, overseen by Dujuan’s family and community elders.

The matrix of creators and advisors spans cultural authority, community sector and screen industry leadership: Felicity Hayes (Executive Producer / Senior Traditional Owner of Mparntwe), Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson (Producer / Iñupiaq/Norwegian/Sami filmmaker and educator), Larissa Beherndt (Producer / Professor of Law and Director of UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning), Sophie Hyde (Producer / Filmmaker), Alex Kelly (Impact Producer /Filmmaker/Campaign strategist), Jane Vadiveloo (Advisor / founding CEO of Children’s Ground), Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM (Great Nana/Advisor / Eastern Arrernte elder, cultural advisor, translator, teacher, artist, author), Kwementjaye Abbott (Senior Arrernte Elder and Knowledge Holder), Amelia Turner (Cultural leader, artist and ngangkere/traditional healer), William Tilmouth (Arrernte descent Stolen Generations survivor, respected elder and former Executive Director of Tangentyere Council 1988-2010, Chair of Children’s Ground), Carol Turner (Dujuan’s grandmother), Megan Hoosan (Dujuan’s mother), James Mawson (Dujuan’s Father), Margaret Anderson (Dujuan’s grandmother), Jimmy Mawson (Dujuan’s grandfather).
This collaborative filmmaking practice deconstructs the conventional crew role calls and hierarchies that by and large remain the architectural logic of major film funding bodies. Newell is listed as Director, Cinematographer, Producer and Editor in promotional materials, festivals and database listings but she would be the first to point out that this occludes the collaborative grounds of the production. Importantly, each of Dujuan’s parents and grandparents who are raising him is credited as a Collaborating Director of the film.

Newell doesn’t appear as a catalyst for action or a character in the story. As camera operator she is nonetheless a strong invisible presence on screen, intimately close to Dujuan, his family, teachers and others, on the street, at school, in cars, and inside his home. Dujuan speaks to her as both a trusted adult and an amplifier. His voice-over narration authorises both story and documentation of a process of storying alongside. The film gives Dujuan space as character and commentator at the same time that it reveals him to be interpolated into a conversation with the adult members of the film team and by extension, with the motivations of its production as an activist intervention.
In the words of Senior Arrernte leader, film advisor and Chairperson of Children’s Ground, William Tilmouth, ‘[t]his film shows us that consultation and collaboration work. Both parties wanted to do it. 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. The film team put aside ego, professionalism, learnings and tried to relearn a new way. This was the vehicle in which the family told their story. They drove it where they wanted it to go. I am quite proud of it actually.’9

In My Blood It Runs is a call for recognition, a claiming of rights, and another chapter in a small revolution in power relations informed by cultural priorities for cultural futures articulated by respected elders: a conversation (re-)starter in a substantial regional history of community-controlled and bi-lingual education initiatives. It was funded and supported by a host of social change documentary initiatives and partners and co-designed by a team of ‘impact’ producers as a way to channel at-risk kids’ and their families’ voices into public and policy conversations from which they are most often excluded. Former long-term Mparntwe resident and global social change activist Alex Kelly played a key role in this dimension of the production. The production and advisory team together envisioned their multiple audiences and shaped a story that would speak on multiple levels and co-designed the post-release messaging. Multiple partnerships have formed around the film, for example with the ATOM Awards and their education resource producers. These are carrying the work into related sovereignty and national youth justice and education conversations.

By holding a close focus on the penal trajectory and its cultural-familial alternatives, the film doesn’t directly address Dujuan’s structural location in a racialised welfare-dependent economic underclass. He emerges from the film and its production as an icon of an autonomous possibility for resistance and survival in the early 21st century’s phase of northern Australian settler colonisation: young, streetwise, multi-lingual, and culturally mobile. Dujuan’s, and his family’s and community’s, relationships with cosmopolitan filmmakers, activists, advocates through this high-end screen work has supported a degree of global mobility as a storyteller and youth spokesman.

In 2019, then 12-year-old Dujuan was the youngest person ever to address the United Nations Human Rights Council on Indigenous issues. He told the assembly of international witnesses and change-makers: ‘…[T]he Australian Government is not listening. Adults never listen to kids like me. But we have important things to say … I felt like a failure at school. I was always worried about being taken away from my family. I was nearly locked up in jail. I was lucky because my family they know I am smart. They love me. They found a way to keep me safe. There are some things I want to see changed: I want my school to be run by Aboriginal people. I want adults to stop cruelling 10-year-old kids in jail. I want my future to be out on land with strong culture and language. My film is for all Aboriginal kids. It is about our dreams, our hopes and our rights. I hope you can make things better for us. Thank you.’

Since its release in 2019, In My Blood It Runs has appeared in major Australian and international film festivals, at the Australian Parliament House, on ABC TV, and at conferences and seminars and enjoyed a limited pre-Covid19 national cinema run. In Mparntwe it premiered at a large outdoor community screening. Dujuan addressed the UN with the assistance of the Human Rights Law Centre. This was a tactic of the impact campaign, aligned with the objectives of the Children’s Ground organisation that helped to develop the film, with the objective of creating high level discussions of Indigenous rights to self-determined education as a foundation for social justice in settler (post)colonies.
Dujuan has spoken clearly about his vantage and the changes he wants to see: The healing power gives me a vision of everythin …. I’ll try and speak to the Prime Minister. I’ll say, ‘Stop killing Aboriginal people.’10 Whether or not policymakers will listen closely remains to be seen. The relevance of the film will persist so long as gaols remain a future horizon for Aboriginal kids. Alongside the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory (2016–17), and the 2019 police shooting of Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker in the central Australian community of Yuendumu, this forward-facing film and Dujuan’s public presentations of its key issues stand as significant points of reference in the Australian unfolding of the global 2020 Black Lives Matter movement.

The struggle for planetary survival is not other to this politics. Dujuan’s great grandmother Nancy McDinny puts this clearly: Thank you for listening to how we feel (through the film). Culture keeps our families strong, it looks after our young people and shows them who they are, to be proud. Our culture is in our connection to the land. At the moment we feel no good because our land is under threat from mining and gas fracking. It is all around us, hurting the country. It is making it hard for our people to stay strong and connected. That’s what you see in the film, what happens when we become lost. We all need to look after country, black and white now living together, our futures are tied up. So we hope you walk with us.11

Learn more about Dujuan’s family’s goals for change at www.inmyblooditruns.com/takeaction

Endnotes

  1. Some points of reference in this space include community documentation of self-determined education, and portraits of the intersectional Indigenous and settler lifeworlds of desert town camp children, where grandmaternal care and concern is a central theme. Curtis Taylor’s Kuul (School) (2010, 2 mins) tells the story in Martu Wangka and English language subtitled voice-over of the development of ‘two-way’ education in remote WA homelands in the 1980s using archival photographs and video: When the Martu moved back to their country at Punmu and Parnngurr they lived in bow [bough] shelters. The number one thing was education for their kids. The kids were taught under a bow-shed. The first building built in the communities was the school. It was a two-way school. The Martu wanted their kids to learn English but also to keep their tjukurpa (culture) strong. In the 1990s, the Punmu and Parngurr schools opened. Our Old People, they went to the mission and they could see the world was changing. They knew they couldn’t go back to their old ways. They knew it was important to learn to read and write to survive but they were also really strong about keeping their knowledge, their law and culture strong. It was a two-way school, two-way learning. Beck Cole’s award-winning observational documentary Wiriya Small Boy (2004, 27 mins, portrays the relationship between a 7 year old Hidden Valley town camp kid Ricco Japaljarri Martin and his grandmother, his ambivalent relationship to school and her concerns for his future.
  2. Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017), the Imagination Declaration (2019).
  3. Quote from In My Blood It Runs media package.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Dujuan, In My Blood It Runs media package.
  7. This scene has also been criticised by some local people who know the school teachers and principal, for narrowly depicting their stance and their curriculum resources. Documentary filmmakers telling stories of historical agency ‘from below’ always have to decide how to represent agents of power and the languages, codes and story genres of power that inscribe and exceed them. Exploring agents of power as characters negotiating their positions is a specific undertaking and that was not the objective of this film.
  8. Dujuan, In My Blood It Runs media package, https://inmyblooditruns.com/media/
  9. Quote from In My Blood It Runs media package, https://inmyblooditruns.com/media/
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

Read the rest of Overland 241

If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four brilliant issues for a year

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Lisa Stefanoff is a mother, researcher, writer, media producer, and curator of Macedonian-Anglo heritage who lives and works in Mparntwe/Alice Springs, mostly on collaborative-dialogical arts/media-led projects. She has long-held relationships with the families in In My Blood It Runs that began through work on the 2003 CAAMA Productions film Beyond Sorry. She respectfully acknowledges the sovereignty, leadership, history and futures of Arrernte and all other First Nations people.

More by