The Pulse of History: IN MY BLOOD IT RUNS AND INDIGENOUS IDENTITY.
Indigenous Australians' lives are too often overlooked by politicians, media organisations and the broader sphere of middle-class Australia. In light of this, director Maya Newell's feature documentary In My Blood It Runs (2019) provides tremendous insight into the Northern Territory's Indigenous communities. By directing its point of view through protagonist Dujuan Hoosan, a ten-year-old Arrernte/Garrwa child-healer, Newell's film offers an intimate portrait of the embodied and psychological experience of being a young Aboriginal child. In My Blood It Runs is one of those unique films that gets under one's skin, with audiences of diverse backgrounds given the opportunity to empathise and identify with young Dujuan and his family as they struggle to cope with various government institutions - the education system, welfare and law enforcement - whose ostensible purposes are to support individuals and their wider community, but which nonetheless frequently damage lives and communities due to cultural misunderstanding.
Importantly, Dujuan mediates our access to his family by narrating aspects of his life, and he contributes to some of the cinematography by using a handheld camera to shoot footage of them. This manner of revealing Dujuan and his relatives to viewers is sensitive to cultural difference, as it defuses the potentially appropriative nature of documentary filmmaking. Sometimes, Dujuan's story also involves phrases and words from his native Arrernte and Garrwa tongues, which has the added effect of disrupting a non-Indigenous audience's point of view.
But what makes this documentary particularly memorable is its emphasis on language's power to shape and mediate our everyday experience, sense of history and imaginative life. This theme is revealed through Dujuan, who lives within and across three linguistic groups and communities: Arrernte, Garrwa and English. We learn that he is a talented traditional healer, but is failing English at school. The clash between white and Indigenous Australia is poignantly dramatised through this tension; Dujuan is valued by his Arrernte/Garrwa communities but considered a troublemaker and a truant by many of the white Australians with whom he interacts.
In My Blood It Runs foregrounds a chasm between Indigenous and white Australia that is experienced as a gulf between cultures and linguistic groups. However, such a division is also navigable through language, since it allows one to articulate one's selfhood and cultural identity. This is precisely what Dujuan does throughout Newell's documentary: he eloquently expresses his connection to the land and his people.
Place, memory and history
In My Blood It Runs begins with obscure whisperings. A mysterious acoustic language launches this documentary; then an unstable camera focuses upon the face of an Aboriginal woman, and the source of this image asks her a question: 'Megan, how many kids do you have?' Megan names her three children, and is cheekily asked which one she loves the most. Through this, we realise that one of her children is filming her; the point of view changes, and we see young Dujuan holding a camera and sitting opposite his mother on the other side of a kerb. Their legs are intertwined, disclosing an intimate bond. It is dusk, and their surrounding landscape is semi-rural, revealing a hill, a few trees and basic housing. Dujuan continues filming as his mother speaks warmly about their family; eventually, he seeks comfort in her arms, and she asks him to stop being restless:
MEGAN: Stop running away, yeah.
Dujuan does not answer, enthralled instead by the encroaching darkness. This is an early indication of his fascination with landscape.
The idea of place as an acoustic, linguistic and physical phenomenon is key to this film's sounds and scenes. Early in the documentary, Dujuan and his friends are filmed in profile looking down from a raised vantage point, from where he and his friends can see their 'little swimming spot', 'the town' and Sadadeen Primary School. They also spot two golf carts and conclude that it is only 'rich people' who play this sport. The series of landmarks and objects identified exposes how much the landscape has been sculpted to accommodate Western values and leisure activities.
As in many Australian films, from Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) through to Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009), the outback in Newell's documentary figures as a powerful force that impacts upon its inhabitants' emotional and everyday lives. In establishing this, Newell often frames Dujuan against astonishing sunsets, skies and ridges. The cinematography's bush focus sometimes makes it look as if Dujuan is alone in a wilderness, but we know otherwise - especially when precise details of his neighbourhood are emblazoned across the screen: 'Hidden Valley Aboriginal Town Camp, Alice Springs, Northern Territory'. When Dujuan returns home from his hilltop wanderings, we see how palpable his and his family's poverty is: the electricity isn't working, and they must rely on a fire for warmth and comfort. Sitting in the semi-darkness of a bonfire, Dujuan begins his story:
I was born a little Aboriginal kid. That means that I had a memory. A memory about Aboriginals. I just felt something - a memory.
As Dujuan speaks about being born into memory, a series of images flickers across the screen revealing various kinds of Indigenous bodies - children and women in silhouette; scenes of painted men. This and later sequences provide a disturbing glimpse into a past drenched in white-settler violence; for instance, images of Indigenous boys wearing Western clothing and marching in a procession act as a grim reminder of the Stolen Generations. (1) The colonial point of view signified by this archival footage sharply contrasts with the wider film, making a very important statement about the many atrocities perpetrated against Australia's first peoples, as well as the objectification entailed in the extensive recording of their bodies through photography and film. In this sequence, Dujuan utters the term 'history' accompanied by the clause 'in my blood it runs', and the significance of the pronoun 'it' in the film's title becomes clear: it is evident that his blood is brimming with memory and history. Our thoughts may return to his mother, and her request that he stop 'running away'; perhaps Dujuan's restlessness is not so much about escape as it is about embracing his Indigeneity.
Newell's film is awash with voices and pictures from the past. The 'blood' of Dujuan's history includes audio of a 1988 speech protesting the bicentenary of white settlement in Australia: 'We want our ceremonies, we want our language, we want our stories told to our children.' Throughout the film, many different kinds of montage sequences overlap with Dujuan's own story, bringing to the fore the notion of history never being finished but, rather, always being alive and unravelling through people and their memories.
Healing, family and eternity
Dujuan's sense of history includes adopting the healing powers of his Arrernte people. He explains that, unlike white people's pharmaceuticals, 'bush medicine [...] heals up the sores on the inside'. He makes this observation while collecting shrubbery that, we assume, has curative power. Dujuan continues to explain that there are 'lots of bush medicines waiting for the Aboriginals to come and pick them', and elaborates that, before cars, houses and manufacturing, 'it was just Aboriginals on Australia'. This sense of a vast 'before' evokes an eternal realm - a sphere outside and beyond (but just as valid as) the world of Western industry and invention.
It is evident that Dujuan is very proud of his Indigenous heritage, as his words and deeds reveal an abiding connection to the land and its restorative power. When Nana Carol lovingly cleanses her grandson in a bathtub of arrethe (a bush medicine) and laughs about his medicinal scent, a touching moment of intergenerational closeness is presented; we see that Dujuan and his grandmother's relationship is one of healing and trust. This domestic scene of care-giving is soon sharply contrasted with the learning activities of Dujuan's school life: wearing an indigo uniform and inscribing a series of basic English words dictated by a teacher, Dujuan appears confused and uncomfortable. Nana Carol expresses her concern over Dujuan's schooling and her grandchildren's education in general; she says the reason she lives in town is that she wants her grandchildren 'to be educated so they know the system when they grow up'.
Knowing the 'system' is not an easy task for Dujuan: it is about not just academic learning, but also adopting the ways of another culture. This idea is reinforced by images of downcast children wearing uniforms and standing in line (harking back to the previous footage of children of the Stolen Generations marching in a procession). Again, history has no end point - it is circular and repetitive. A different sense of eternity emerges as we come to the grim realisation that Indigenous displacement and dispossession are still happening now, enacted in many ways over and over again.
This recognition is compounded by Dujuan's schoolteacher announcing that she is going to tell them a story that isn't fiction but fact. Inscribed across the cover of a large volume called The Australia Book are figures of British soldiers, colonial settlers, convicts, and a naked Aboriginal man carrying a spear and holding a black child. Here, the white-settler narrative is presented as the true story of Australia. Astonishingly, even in the twenty-first century, this version of history - beginning with colonial settlement and, thus, erasing over 60,000 years of Indigenous existence - still takes precedence. The lesson feels galling. Dujuan is certainly aware of what is going on:
The history that we're told at home is in language and it's about the Aborigines. But the ones back at school, that was for white people, not for Aboriginals.
Dujuan's keen awareness of the disjunction between white and Aboriginal versions of history means that it is difficult for him to reconcile himself with a school curriculum that sidelines his culture. He explains his feelings as another montage flashes across the screen, revealing young Indigenous girls and boys being taught by nuns and other white instructors. Dujuan says that teachers are trying to teach Aboriginals to 'act [and] be like' white people. His words manage to capture the essence of Australia's twentieth century assimilationist policies that, in many ways, are still being enacted by an education system that excludes Indigenous knowledges. As Indigenous researcher Amy Thunig argues,
Education, or to be more specific, formal schooling, is not and never has been neutral or apolitical within this settler-colonial state [...] In order to have honest and open discussions around the future of education, we must engage in questioning what the purpose of schooling is and ensure we have a shared understanding of the history of the schooling systems. (2)
Such questioning needs to begin with an acknowledgement that the education system as we know it began as a white-settler interpolation, whose Eurocentric bias has always excluded and undermined Indigenous identity and cultures. The injustice of exclusion is powerfully revealed through Dujuan, whose experience of displacement echoes a long saga of Indigenous loss.
Homeland, language and the blood of history
When Nana Carol takes Dujuan to Sandy Bore, their ancestral homeland (no kilometres north-east of Alice Springs), there is a brief moment of respite from the strictures of school and the constructed world of the town. Dujuan joyfully exclaims, 'I'm coming to the homeland,' and his grandmother gently corrects him: 'You mean, "coming back".' The landscape features again as a restorative sphere. Dujuan expresses his belief that, if he went to the 'bush' every week, then he could manage his anger and learn how to control his life. This scene foreshadows his later departure from Alice Springs, when it becomes clear that his repeated truancy and late-night absconding will lead to either the loss of his mother's welfare benefits or, worse, juvenile detention. Nana Carol is particularly driven to prevent her grandson from following in the footsteps of her sons, who, in Dujuan's words, have been 'cruelled' by the Northern Territory's now-infamous Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. (3)
While spending time at Sandy Bore, Nana Carol expresses her desire that Dujuan speak Arrernte fluently so that he can continue the knowledge of the 'old people'. Here, language is united with the land as Dujuan's grandmother muses that the 'best time' to learn their language is when dwelling in their homeland. Nana Carol is an extremely wise woman who wants her 'kids to grow up learning in both ways'; by this, she means that Dujuan and her other grandchildren need to master both English and Arrernte in order to live successfully across two worlds and cultures. However, for young Dujuan, this is not an easy task; he struggles to get out of bed after receiving a damning school report that identifies him as a failing student.
Dujuan's behavioural decline can be traced to this school document: it makes him wonder if there's 'something wrong' with him. His deteriorating sense of self-worth is expressed through frustrated explosions and absences that lead to his school suspension and eventual expulsion. His lack of self-control is particularly dangerous in light of the fact that he could be sent to juvenile detention. Newell conveys the peril faced by Dujuan by incorporating recent television images that reveal shocking acts of torture suffered by young Indigenous boys at Don Dale.
It is urgent in Dujuan's mind that he not be 'taken away by white people'. Nana Carol and her community of female elders are also worried about his fate, and they decide that it is best that he live with his father, James, 1260 kilometres away from Alice Springs in Spring Creek, Borroloola - another homeland region that hosts his Garrwa people. This has a settling effect on Dujuan: his new school teaches him the Garrwa language, and, every weekend, he goes 'out bush' with his father, where they fish, camp and enact traditional customs. It is in this bush setting that Dujuan reveals a central desire: 'What I want is a normal life of just being me. And what I mean by "me" is [that] I want to be an Aborigine.' The simplicity of these words should not be mistaken for naivety, since the film makes clear how very difficult it has been for Dujuan to achieve this basic goal.
Newell's documentary is moving and ambitious, bringing to the fore extremely painful images and memories that trace historical as well as present-day injustices that have been perpetrated against Indigenous peoples. Her deft use of archival and contemporary footage encompasses this grand arc of abuse, showing history as a circular and repetitive phenomenon. For Dujuan, history's spiralling is understood as a continuous blood trail: 'History runs straight into all the Aboriginals. It travels all the way through from my blood pipes, all the way to the brain.' This idea of the past as a blood pathway is a haunting one, lingering well after the credits roll. The end credits deliver another punch: via an intertitle, we learn that, at the time of filming, every child in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal.* While such information is unsettling, it is also a forceful call to arms to address this shocking statistic. Newell's documentary suggests that we could start attending to this problem by making our education system more inclusive and collaborative - in particular, by involving Indigenous peoples and their knowledges.
In My Blood It Runs captures the embodied complexity of Indigenous existence and experience. It is fascinating to witness, through Dujuan and his family, the overlap between language, culture and identity. Newell's documentary reminds us of the many shades and differences within Indigenous cultures and how these are expressed through distinctive dialects. Non-Indigenous viewers may also be reminded that Aboriginal Australians are not merely one homogenous mass with one standardised language, but a mixed community consisting of many different groups and vernaculars. Audiences are additionally prompted to reflect upon historical and contemporary injustices, and how breaking a cycle of abuse could be achieved by acknowledging and respecting Indigeneity as a standalone, dignified identity that has its own various and complex cultures and histories.
Dr Suzie Gibson is a senior lecturer in English literature at Charles Sturt University. She has published widely in distinguished national and international journals, covering the fields of literature, film and television. Her research is informed by her knowledge of nineteenth-century literature. feminism and philosophy.
(1) The Stolen Generations were the consequence of a government program that removed mixed-race or 'half-caste' Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. This policy was enacted around the turn of the twentieth century and continued well into its latter half. For more information, see 'The Stolen Generations: The Forcible Removal of Indigenous Children from Their Families', Australians Together website, <https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/stolen-generations>, accessed 19 September 2019.
(2) Amy Thunig, 'Even Education Has Been Used as a Weapon of White Supremacy in Australia', The Guardian, 5 July 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/05/even-education-has-been-used-as-a-weapon-of-white-supremacy-in-australia>, accessed 25 September 2019.
(3) On 25 July 2016, the ABC's Four Corners program aired a very disturbing report on the Northern Territory's Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, whose footage of young Indigenous boys being tortured inspired public outrage and, soon after, the announcement of a royal commission into juvenile detention. See Caro Meldrum-Hanna & Elise Worthington, 'Evidence of "Torture" of Children Held in Don Dale Detention Centre Uncovered by Four Corners', ABC News, 26 July 2016, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-25/four-corners-evidence-of-kids-tear-gas-in-don-dale-prison/7656l28>; and '"100% of Children Detained in NT Are Aboriginal"', NITV News, 26 June 2018, <https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2018/06/26/australia-aboriginal-detention-northern-territory>, both accessed 24 September 2019.
(4) '"100% of Children Detained in NT Are Aboriginal"', ibid.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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