Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Growing up across many worlds – the daily life of ‘In My Blood it Runs’

An important new film about Dujuan, a young Aboriginal boy living in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia, is both engaging and challenging, raising major issues about growing up Aboriginal in modern Australia. ‘In My Blood it Runs’ is a film for our troubled times, that tackles the challenges of a culturally divided country, but also finds the hope that this cultural diversity can offer us all for our overlapping futures.

The National Museum of Australia recently hosted a sold-out preview screening which I was lucky enough to buy a ticket for – one of the last available. Here's hoping the film will have a wider distribution. I'm still thinking about the film, but this is an initial personal response to seeing it, coloured by more than six years working in the Indigenous language and culture programs of the Australian Government. The film unfolds slowly, capturing everyday life in Aboriginal communities in Alice Springs, and later in more remote Borroloola.

The opening frame of the film - with suggestions for action - above members of the discussion panel which followed the screening.

It doesn’t rush its story. It’s about everyday life, touching on everyday dramas and the everyday challenge of getting along. In a strange – and good – way, it's a bit like a family movie. Maya Newell, the Director of the film, commented that it was the result of hundreds of hours of filming, compressed to become the final story – and that pays off in a very powerful way. This is how we all experience the world. Hours of detail pass us by every single moment and are hardly noticed, but from them we sieve out the important things.

Living across two worlds
The film shares the story of ten-year-old Dujuan, a child-healer and good hunter who speaks three languages. As he shares his wisdom of history and the complex world around him, we see his spark and intelligence. Yet Dujuan is ‘failing’ in school and facing increasing scrutiny from welfare and the police. As he travels perilously close to incarceration, his family fight to give him a strong Arrernte education alongside his Western education, to prevent him becoming another statistic. We walk with him as he grapples with these pressures, shares his truths and somewhere in-between finds space to dream, imagine and hope for his future self, living across two worlds.

‘We walk with him as he grapples with these pressures, shares his truths and somewhere in-between finds space to dream, imagine and hope for his future self, living across two worlds.’

There is a broad and impressive team behind the film – and a long history. Of course there is always family, including a formidable array of aunties and nanas and grandnanas determined to keep their kids on the right track. The production team prides itself on the fact that the Arrernte and Garrwa families in the film and the board of Advisors to the film are core partners and were involved in robust consultation at all stages of production. It was based on an ongoing process to ensure that each individual comprehensively understood the terms of involvement and had control over how their stories and images were portrayed.

Alice Springs - Central Australia.

2019 was an impressive year for the film-makers, with some major achievements for the film and team. This included Dujuan addressing the UN in Geneva, as well as State and Territory Parliamentary screenings and sold out festival screenings across the globe (Toronto, New York, Durban, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and many more) and it also won numerous awards. There are more details on the film website and online information about what audiences think of the film.

A part of a much larger dream
The film comes from a long history of collaboration and is part of a much broader plan to contribute to making a fundamental difference to how education for First Nations children moves into the future. Amongst a comprehensive body of ambition, two of the bigger pieces of work the makers and supporters are trying to do with ‘In My Blood it Runs’ are:
  • Supporting a campaign to raise the criminal age from 10 to 14 nationally. They have screened at the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department and are pushing the case with all the state Attorney-Generals as well.
  • Building support for a First Nations Education System – this is a huge project and the film is seen as the beginning of a conversation other groups will carry forward. 
One of the strongest aspects of the film is that is is explicitly the linchpin for achieving serious change. A whole smorgasbord of activities is suggested to help viewers respond positively to the issues raised by the film – in each and every community across Australia.

Starting and ending with language and culture
It all comes back to the importance of language and culture. For mainstream Australia, where the English language and mainstream culture are everyday practice, the concern of those in the film to maintain their language and culture doesn’t make sense – when your culture and language rules all around you, you don’t even notice, you don't even really appreciate it. It’s invisible because it’s everywhere, it’s taken for granted.

There is plenty of evidence that young students learn English better from the starting point of their own language. Mastering several languages also encourages innovative and lateral thinking and fosters adaptability and flexibility. This is why it’s so heartening that on Wiradjuri country round Parkes in Western New South Wales, whole schools are enthusiastically learning Wiradjuri as a central part of their Australian education.

‘It’s the fascinating story of one interesting young boy which illuminates many much broader issues affecting whole generations.’

The film is not about ‘Aboriginal Australia’ – that's too big a subject for one film. It’s the fascinating story of one interesting young boy which illuminates many much broader issues affecting whole generations. The issues also affect many more than just Aboriginal kids, but because they affect these youngsters so acutely, due to the cultural dividing lines, they became a really useful practical example of what not to do – for everyone in our overlapping and often difficult future together.

A story for everyone
The film made me reflect on why First Nations culture is so relevant to every Australian. It’s partly because First Nations culture is such a central and dynamic (and immensely positive) part of Australian culture. It’s also because Aboriginal communities are both the canary in the coalmine for many troubling issues affecting all Australians – and also in many ways shine a light on all our communities. Governments might trial the cashless welfare card with Aboriginal communities, but if they could get away with it, they’d introduce it for everyone – they are already planning it. The antipathy towards servicing of remote Aboriginal communities has resonance in the way regional communities generally are courted for votes but not really appreciated or valued by many politicians for what they contribute to a modern urbanised Australia.I can't help thinking that amongst the myriad of issues with which contemporary Australia has to grapple, we will sink or swim together.

‘Aboriginal communities are both the canary in the coalmine for many troubling issues affecting all Australians – and also a beacon for all our communities.’

At the same time, efforts by Aboriginal communities to restore their languages are a powerful example of what all communities can do to protect and restore their heritage and local traditions, giving valuable clues to how to move forward into our shared future while retaining the best from our assorted – and often troubling – pasts.

The recent devastating and unparalleled bushfires have underlined how we are still coming to grips with living well on this continent. There seems to be renewed interest in traditional bush management techniques practiced by First Nations communities. We have a lot to learn about how to survive in a dry, hot land that’s getting drier and hotter – and yet there are people amongst us who have been doing it for thousands of years.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook

Art and sport and an essential service under threat 
‘In this dangerous age of pandemic that has succeeded our months of fire and smoke, all sorts of things we have taken for granted have become apparent. One of these is how similar in many respects the arts and sport are. The other is how community organisations are kept alive by an essential service that is often overlooked’, Art and sport and an essential service under threat.

Art at work – imagining a future Australia
‘In our strange new universe, where much of Australia burns while politicians make excuses for inaction, it’s time to take a hard look at what the arts can do. It’s an issue in the minds of many in the arts and culture sector. Part of the potential role of arts is around bushfire recovery – a much bigger part is around bushfire prevention. Artists have a role to play in designing a different future than what’s on offer and writing the story of a different future. Those social movements that are most powerful are the ones where arts and culture embodies and carries forward the essence of what they stand for. Think of the power of ceremony and ritual in the world – that is ultimately the power of art at work’, Art at work – imagining a future Australia.

What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture
‘With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture. Much work has been done in Australia and internationally to understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture. The challenge is to share and to apply what already exists – and to take it further’, What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture.

See also – indefinite articles in a definite world‘If you are losing track of the articles I have published to my 'indefinite article' blog over the last few years, this is a summary of all 133 articles up until mid July 2017, broken down into categories for easy access. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian arts and culture’, See also – indefinite articles in a definite world.

Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture 
‘Understanding, assessing and communicating the broad value of arts and culture is a major and ongoing task. There has been an immense amount of work already carried out. The challenge is to understand some of the pitfalls of research and the mechanisms and motivations that underpin it. Research and evaluation is invaluable for all organisations but it is particularly important for Government. The experience of researching arts and culture in Government is of much broader relevance, as the arts and culture sector navigates the tricky task of building a comprehensive understanding in each locality of the broader benefits of arts and culture. The latest Arts restructure makes this even more urgent.’, Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture.

Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world
‘What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage’, Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

Indigenous culture and Closing the Gap
‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia
‘The arts and culture sector has long suffered from a shortage of high quality, useable research and statistics. This makes what is available doubly important as we argue the case for the central relevance of arts and culture and the broader social and economic impact of involvement. New research demonstrates the positive scale of involvement, views on importance and trends in participation in Australia’s arts and cultural life, especially hands on involvement. It also shows a worrying decline in engagement and recognition in recent years and points to the need for a more strategic view by government’, Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

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