September 21, 2020

'In My Blood It Runs:' Visualizing the Weight of History through an Aboriginal Child's Eyes

From 'In My Blood It Runs,' Dujuan in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). Photo by Maya Newell. Courtesy of Closer Productions

Shooting Scenarios is a new column that takes a single scene and breaks it down cinematographically, looking at the shooting logistics, creative challenges, and camera gear deployed. 

Dujuan Hoosan is a precocious 10-year-old from Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Australia, considered a healer by his Arrernte tribe and a delinquent by his colonialist-minded school. For more than two years, Australian documentarian Maya Newell followed Dujuan, capturing both quotidian moments and broader patterns of racism, with special focus on the educational and juvenile detention systems. Working with a mixed indigenous/non-indigenous team, Newell crafted an observational documentary that is neither didactic nor polemical, but makes its points just by sticking close to Dujuan. The film has been shown to the Australian Parliament and the United Nations in Geneva, where Dujuan was the youngest person ever to address the UN’s Human Rights Council. 

In My Blood It Runs airs September 21 on POV and is released in the US through Sentient Art Film.

The Scene

Four minutes into In My Blood It Runs comes a title sequence of such lyricism and evocative meaning it’s clear we’re way beyond the norm. 

A close-up camera observes Dujuan playing games with his family and staring into the flames of an oil-drum fire. We then cut to a dreamy, out-of-focus shot of fireworks. Someone has lit a handheld bottle sparkler, which gushes a torrent of golden sparks. Some drift up into the darkness, and the lens’ bokeh turns them into orbs of light floating above a river of gold. The effect is magical.

Dujuan, in focus, fearlessly grabs a lit bottle sparkler from the ground. The image switches to slow motion once he starts to run, trailing sparks like a comet. This takes the film into a different temporal space, one that’s fluid and stretches across the decades. In voiceover Dujuan says, “I was born a little Aboriginal kid. That means I had a memory, a memory about Aboriginals. I just felt something.” Here archival clips start to be intercut with the sparkler footage, each snippet overlaid with dancing orbs of light: an Aboriginal father and children before a smoking fire, dancing men in body paint, Stolen Generation adolescents in uniform at a mission school. 

Dujuan continues, “History. In my blood it runs.”

We now see clips of demonstrations leading up to Australia’s 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights and inclusion in the census. Archival audio fades up: “We want our ceremonies. We want our language. We want our stories told to our children.”

The one-minute sequence ends with a final pop of fireworks and the title In My Blood It Runs.

The Concept

When Newell recorded Dujuan saying that line early on, it stuck with her. “I thought it was incredibly profound for a young person to articulate the weight of history that children carry through life,” says the director/cinematographer. “That doesn’t mean he’s studied the historical facts. But he feels that weight.”

Newell’s challenge was to render that idea visually while remaining true to the film’s child’s-eye perspective. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we not make this like a BBC documentary, where you’re actually learning that history?’” she recalls. 

Rather than use archives didactically, they became “flickers of history,” says the director. The clips selected often contained children and represented Aboriginals’ “resilience and resistance, the history that is not told,” according to Newell. Collectively, they had “the feeling of that weight—as memories, as stories—but telling that in a child-friendly way where it’s not a factual lesson, it’s an evocative portrayal of memory.” The superimposed orbs of light were a reminder that these archival snippets were poetic evocations, a device that continues throughout the film.

“For me, the moments where I’ve been shifted or moved by a documentary are not when I’ve been fed facts,” Newell says. “It’s when I’ve had a feeling, or something’s been presented to me in a new way. So it was really important that we kept the storytelling and the artfulness of this film front and center.”

Courtesy of Closer Productions

The Gear

One-touch slow motion was a big reason behind Newell’s choice of the lightweight Sony PXW-FS5 as her primary camera. “On the FS5, you can flip between 25 fps and slow motion with just one button,” she says. “On most cameras, you have to go into a menu and find the frame rate you want. By that time, if you’re filming a small child with a firework, you’ve missed the moment. That’s one of the things I love about that camera: if you feel a moment coming, you can capture it at up to 250 fps.” 

Newell felt just such a moment when Dujuan started to run. “I was very moved by Beasts of the Southern Wild and that hero shot of Hushpuppy running with fireworks in each hand. It feels like freedom. Dujuan has no fear; he just picked up these fireworks and started running, and I was having flashbacks of that moment in Beasts,” so she instinctively switched to 100 fps. Besides, she adds,

“There’s just something very beautiful about the interweaving of fireworks and these moments of history and this child running like a mirage through the opening sequence, running through memories.”

Here and elsewhere, Newell stabilized the handheld camera with a simple rig she’d acquired at the beginning of her career. “I try to use the rig as much as possible, because I hate being in a cinema where I’m feeling sick by the end of the film. There’s no reason why documentaries these days can’t look as beautiful and professional as a feature film.” 

Shooting at HD 1960x1080, she framed for 2.39:1 widescreen, wanting the desert landscapes “to take you in and create a wraparound experience of Dujuan’s world.

Newell’s workhorse lens was a Canon 24–70mm f/2.8 zoom, which remained on the camera for this scene and most of the shoot. While she also carried a Canon 50mm prime and an 18–35mm zoom, they mostly stayed in their cases; lens changes were avoided, given the amount of desert dust. 

Much of the time, she was on the short end of the 24–70mm, filming extreme close-ups within a foot of her subjects. There was a technical reason for that: to capture sound through the on-board shotgun mic. “You just need to be close when you don’t have a sound person around,” she explains. While radio mics were affixed to the kids, they were “running and playing and tumbling in all sorts of directions,” so she couldn’t count on good sound quality. She now prefers the intimate look that stems from this technical imperative.

From 'In My Blood It Runs'

The Team

One distinguishing trait of production was the active participation of the Aboriginal community, from prep to final cut. Dujuan and his extended family were collaborating directors. They, in turn, selected a board of advisors from their Arrernte community, who joined advisors from organizations like Children’s Ground, a nonprofit dedicated to First Nations education reform. All offered not just cultural advice, but creative input. They’d meet to talk about story and style, discuss rushes, critique various cuts, and help design the educational campaign. They in turn were educated about the filmmaking process. These meetings were run by producer Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, an Iñupiaq filmmaker from Alaska. And there to encourage his fellow Arrerntes to speak up was advisor William Tilmouth, founding chair of Children’s Ground, who first collaborated with Newell 10 years ago.

“People were very skeptical at first,” Tilmouth recalls. “Historically, filmmakers came in, talked to us, then we’d never see them again. People would go off and become ‘experts’ on our lives. Aboriginal people were always at the back of the room, never up front, never able to voice their opinion. After generations and generations of that behavior, it’s very hard to get people to even move away from just a whisper. To feel free to talk. To say, ‘I’d like this part to be here, I’d like that taken out.’ Because I’m one of them, people felt comfortable when I spoke up. My role was more about empowering them to speak their minds.” 

Newell adds, “William did an amazing job of reminding us as filmmakers why agency was so important at every step of the way. By sitting in those meetings and backing families, he gave them the confidence to use their voice and say what they wanted in and out of the film.”

Recalling the discussion about the fireworks sequence—shot on Northern Territory Day, the one day a year it’s legal to buy and set off fireworks—Tilmouth says, “Fire was always part of our culture. It was a tool to survive. Fire represented home, the warmth of a fire, the gathering of families, a way of cooking, even farming the land. People accepted the fact that Dujuan was playing with fire. It was him testing the boundaries of his life.”

He’s satisfied with the title as well. “As an indigenous person, the words ‘in my blood it runs’ gives you immense pride in who you are and where you’ve come from. For 60-odd thousand years, we’ve survived in this country. This pride runs in our blood, and we can draw on it to survive the rigors of Western society.”

To learn more about the film, its team, and its educational campaign, see https://inmyblooditruns.com.



Patricia Thomson is a longtime film journalist and a contributing writer for American Cinematographer.

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