Few genres of film are more neglected than children’s cinema. If a child wants to see anything besides Disney, Disney-adjacent or sub-Disney animated fare about talking animals or fictional princesses, there are few modern films to which they can turn. Despite this, children are one of the greatest generators of cinematic empathy. The power of a child - or an adult who can remember being one - actively disregarding a very real and very tangible threat, is what makes Maya Newell’s IN MY BLOOD IT RUNS all the more remarkable.
Focusing on the life of a ten-year-old Arrernte and Garrwa boy, Dujuan Hoosan, Newell’s film opens with a point-of-view shot of the face of Dujuan’s mother, seen from his perspective. We then watch him watch his mother through a camera, straight away establishing that this film, as much as possible, is seen through the eyes of Dujuan. This means time with the spiritually rich and nourishing world of innumerable aunts, nanas and grand nanas in his community of Hidden Valley in the Northern Territory, and ancestral homeland of Sandy Bore.
Blending English and his native language of Arrernte, Dujuan is a healer, and treated with love and respect by everyone he encounters there, as if he were an omnipotent man who just needed guidance to control his powers. In fact, his community has done such a good job of raising and caring for Dujuan, he feels invulnerable. A feeling that he carries into the primary school where he is taught colonial history and his spiritual beliefs are ignored or gently mocked, and onto the streets of the town where threats of incarceration are ever present.
We hear him speak his native languages, see his openness to learning from his community and the land, and learn to channel his power to heal, or Ngangkere, as well as seeing the world through Dujuan’s camera. Through this, the viewer is as congruent with Dujuan as they have been with any child in cinema history. This congruence is what makes his intolerance of the school classroom, his habitual misdemeanours and their repercussions all the more troubling. His elders are desperate for Dujuan to be educated as well as learn their knowledge, and his truancy, unwillingness to learn the basics of primary education infuriate, yet also tell so much. Dujuan’s instances of violence are spoken about, not seen, but we see how differently he is treated and he responds in school and these scenes speak volumes.
We see Dujuan’s family frantically trying to find out where he is when he wanders off, perpetually worried that he’ll have been picked up by the police like so many of his friends. When we see Dujuan watching footage of Dylan Voller in a spit hood, and the stripping and beating of young aboriginal men in Don Dale juvenile detention centre we see how close to home the story is. “Everybody’s treating them like the same way they treat their enemies,” says Dujuan.
Australia, we learn, is one of the last countries on earth that finds children as young as 10 criminally culpable. In the Northern Territory, 100 per cent of children in juvenile detention are Aboriginal. A shocking statistic, but not one that is instigating any political change.
Throughout, Dujuan never stops feeling and acting as though he’s free. This freedom comes, in part, from being comfortable around his predominantly female community and being filmed by an all-female film crew and with female collaborative directors and advisors that helped make the film. One of the miracles of IN MY BLOOD IT RUNS is that it is an optimistic film. That it feels raw and vibrant but finds room for a communal voice without ever feeling simplistic or crowded.
Seeing children in oppressive and terrifying situations is one of the most powerful cards a filmmaker can play. From evading velociraptors in Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK, to forging a skerrick of fraught hope amid the poverty of Glasgow in Ken Loach’s KES, to facing death in the Pacific Ocean in Niki Caro’s WHALE RIDER. In each case, the dramatic decisions to foreground the experience of children is powerful and engaging. Maya Newell has, with IN MY BLOOD IT RUNS, taken the urge to engage and protect that comes with seeing a child in dangerous circumstances and, rather than take that sense of engagement as an end point of narrative success, she layers empathy and ultimately the discomfort of culpability. To see the world through Dujuan’s eyes and to know these women from whom we are unlikely to ever hear, feels like a privilege, and reminds us of the purpose of cinema.
Andy Hazel is the editorial assistant at The Saturday Paper and was co-host of the 2018 AACTA Film Fest.