Above: Dujuan in the hills near his home at Hidden Valley in Alice Springs. Photo by Maya Newell, director of In my blood it runs.
REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
Last updated 19 February 2020, 3.07pm: “prison officers” amended to “youth justice officers”.
“What drew you into the streets and what did you find there?”
The question was put from the floor to Dujuan Hoosan, a bright, thoughtful, rather charismatic youth from a loving Aboriginal family who nonetheless was getting into trouble, at school and on the streets, and was in danger of entering the justice system.
Dujuan is at the centre of the documentary, In my blood it runs, which screened to a full house at Araluen last Saturday. We first meet him as a 10 year old and he is already running away at night – a big worry for his mother and grandmother. It reaches a crescendo as he heads towards his 11th birthday, when the police identify him from CCTV among a group of youths jumping on cars and smashing them. They warn his family that this is his last chance.
It is then that his mother (affectionate and attentive) and grandmother (fiercely protective) make the hard decision to send their son and grandson north, to Borroloola, into the care of his father.
This comes about three-quarters of the way into the film. In all that time viewers have been offered only limited insight into what is so troubling Dujuan – the things that might answer that question from the floor.
From the stage, Dujuan responded to the second part of the question, about what he found on the street: “Family and friends, people to hang out with, people who give you love, people who spoil you with things that you can’t get.”
The first part, what drew him there, is more complicated, and it is not surprising that a young person might struggle to understand it, let alone articulate it.
The film’s production team would probably claim that the film does this job but, despite its interest – my attention never flagged – and its many merits in telling a moving story, I came away with that question largely unanswered.
Right: Dujuan with Maya Newell, the film’s director, outside his home.
Of course, we get some clues: right at the start, Dujuan and other children of his age are playing in the hills above Hidden Valley, the town camp where Dujuan lives. Looking out over the town they comment on the golf course and surrounding area, places they see as being for rich people who have good houses, with “clean fronts”. They see themselves as ‘have nots’, in material terms, and this sharply contrasts their lives with the other lives out there.
Conditions at home though, to the extent that we see them, don’t seem bad. Dujuan, his mother, his big brother and baby brother have a house. It seems well-kept and not over-crowded. Money is tight. For instance, one night there’s no power (presumably because they don’t have another power card for the meter, rather than a blackout). One morning there is no milk for breakfast, but we see Dujuan making himself some toast at school.
The big money worry comes when Welfare threaten to cut off his mother’s payments when he keeps skipping school (According to the Department of Social Security, this discriminatory measure, known as SEAM, no longer applies, effective 31 December 2017).
The film places a strong emphasis on Dujuan’s negative experiences at school. Part of what we see is to do with school culture, as many a parent, especially of boys full of restless energy, could attest, although that culture is arguably more alienating and mystifying for Aboriginal children and their families.
There are lessons that fail to engage him – boring (except for Arrernte, when his face lights up with pleasure) and seemingly irrelevant, even though somewhere along the line he has been engaged because he has some ability to read and write. Attempts to exert discipline over him fail spectacularly. Three days suspension? “Yes!” he exclaims.
Feedback to him and his family in a report card full of ‘Es’ is demoralising and seems not to have been balanced by any appreciation of his many obvious qualities. (I can say that I, as a parent, privileged and white as I am, have had this experience and have seen the damage it caused.)
A meeting with the principal of Yipirinya School – as much as one might want to recognise the many pressures this woman is under – is a disaster. Rather than having his slate wiped clean and an emphasis put on his chance now to make good, Dujuan has his nose rubbed into his failures. If his apology isn’t going to be accepted, if the basic message is that he’s bad – and remember he is only 10 – then how does the principal think he is going to react? (Again, I can say I have had this kind of experience with my child.)
There are other school experiences shown whose impacts are more specific to Dujuan as a young Aboriginal person – and in scene after scene he articulates just how important this identity is to him; this is what, in his own words, runs “in my blood”. (This aspect of his portrait is one of the real achievements of the film in a number of beautifully-realised scenes.)
Left: Dujuan in class, photo by Maya Newell.
Most egregiously, we see a history lesson in progress (this seems to be at Sadadeen School), where the teacher (unseen but heard) is using The Australia Book by Eve Pownall. It is immediately obvious that the book is of another era. I am flabbergasted to discover, by searching online, that it was originally published in 1952, when it won the Children’s Book of the Year Award.
In 2008 it was republished in a facsimile edition, its publishers proclaiming that it is “welcomed by literacy experts, teachers, librarians, historians, and parents and grandparents who treasured it as children”. If this is so, I don’t know what rock they have all been living under in relation to the very big shifts in understanding of and reckoning with Australian history and of relationships between Indigenous and other Australians.
The teacher tells Dujuan and his class that this book “isn’t a story, it’s information” meaning “non-fiction or fact” and it’s about “the history of our country”. He starts to read to them about Captain Cook’s voyage up the east coast and what a great sailor he was and how he eventually claims “for the English country the whole of this new land”.
The teacher points out the illustration of the English flag, commenting that it is “still on our flag”. There is no suggestion that any of this is up for discussion or commentary.
We don’t see all of the lesson that follows, but we do see the children being asked to identify on their work sheets words like Botany Bay, First Fleet, convicts, Arthur Phillip.
It beggars belief that this book is being used in the 21st Century in any Australian classroom unless it is going to be carefully contextualised and then balanced by a story of how these events were being viewed from the shore. (Dujuan knows, not that he’s asked in the classroom: “The Aboriginal people told them to go and find another land, because this was their land.”)
It is very poor education that the book is presented as simply “fact”; it is utterly affronting that this is to a classroom full of Aboriginal children.
Little wonder that Dujuan feels alienated from this lesson and it’s impressive to hear him articulate why: this history is “for white people, not for Aboriginals” and “white people think that the Aboriginals should act like them, be like them”.
Right: Dujuan and his mother, Megan Hoosan.
Outside of school, there is something else shown by the film that builds in Dujuan a sense that what is on offer in the dominant society, if it is for him, is extremely threatening. Juvenile detention looms large as both a real prospect and as a kind of bogeyman (along with foster care) that his family use to try to keep him in line – that is, go to school and stay at home at night. (The Yipirinya principal also uses this tactic: “You want to get locked up, with those other kids?”)
What Dujuan knows about detention comes in part from TV: we see him watching footage of detainee Dylan Voller, both the infamous scenes inside Aranda House of him being held down and stripped by three men (he was then a slight 13-year-old), and of him later, aged 17, in the adult gaol, where he had been transferred after the tear-gassing incident at Don Dale, shackled and hooded in a restraint chair. (We don’t see or hear of this prompting a Royal Commission nor of a subsequent considerable program of reform, however imperfect it may be.)
Another source of information is a young aunty who was in detention. She tells him she and three others were “starved for a week” while they were inside. This, she urges him, is why he should go to school – to avoid such a fate.
The film does not attempt to explore the aunty’s grave allegation. Viewers might think that it is preposterous but I note that the Royal Commission’s final report does refer to evidence of food being withdrawn in an attempt to control behaviour. I quote (emphasis mine):
The Commission received a considerable body of evidence about inappropriate conduct by youth justice officers directed towards detainees. The conduct took many forms and some of it can be characterised as abuses of power and excessive forms of control and humiliation. The Commission received evidence that youth justice officers had: • subjected detainees to verbal abuse and racist remarks • exerted controlling behaviour, such as withholding necessities like food, water and the use of toilet facilities • dared detainees, or offered bribes to detainees, to carry out degrading, humiliating and/or harmful acts, or to carry out acts of physical violence on each other, and • used mobile phones in inappropriate, humiliating and potentially harmful ways.
The important thing, in terms of understanding Dujuan, is that he sees all this behaviour by adults as kids being “cruelled”, as “torture”. The fear it must instil, however, is not enough to change what he’s doing. Despite the loving family he has behind him – and we see his grandmother going out late at night to find him and bring him home from the streets – he keeps courting this frightening prospect.
When his family decide that the only way to protect him is to send him to his father, we learn that it is five years since Dujuan has seen him.
Things seem to go well for him in Borroloola. There’s another strong grandmother on the scene, a grandfather too, he goes to school, his father is enjoying his belated parenting, spending time with his son at the weekend on the family’s homeland, swimming, fishing – “it’s like a dream”, says Dujuan.
It is in these scenes, which come right at the end of the film, that we are given a glimpse of another important element no doubt helping tip Dujuan towards trouble back in Alice – not only his missing Dad but also, it would seem, the lack of any significant male figures.
On the evidence of the film, Dujuan was living in an almost entirely female world. A rather wonderful group of women they are, showing a high degree of commitment to him and to their other young people, but there must have been some men around, at the edges of his life, even if only as residents of the town camp.
Left: Dujuan with his grandfather Jimmy Mawson in Borroloola.
We know Dujuan is aware of fighting and drinking, because we hear him one day declaring that he will never drink, “not even one taste, because it’s not good for your body parts”, and that fighting too is not good, because you can make people “bleed, then run out of blood”.
It’s not clear exactly what has prompted this reflection but it comes in the film after we learn that an aunty has been stabbed in the leg, badly enough to be treated in ICU. This is the only acknowledgement in the film of violence in Dujuan’s world (other than the televised violence of youth justice officers).
There is no reference at all to drinking, other than by his mother who talks about having grown up around a lot of drinking and fighting and being expelled from school, before being sent to Borroloola which is where she met Dujuan’s father.
Filming at Hidden Valley is exclusively at the family’s home and immediately in front of it; otherwise the camp is shown only from a distance and even the soundtrack is discreet. For all we know, this is a quiet, peaceful neighbourhood. I don’t want to fall into stereotypes about town camps, they undoubtedly have their strengths, but the film does not give us even a glimpse into what it is like living there, let alone a frank portrayal.
We learned in the Q&A that followed the screening that the film was made with a particular production structure, in which the people being represented – Dujuan and his family, including several of the senior women at Akeyulerre Inc – are copyright holders, were carefully consulted every step of the way, and had a large input into the story that was told.
It’s understandable, given the preponderance of negative stories and commentary about Aboriginal people in the public domain, that they may have purposefully chosen not to go into these difficult areas.
It may also have been politically sensitive for them (I’m thinking of local Aboriginal political sensitivities, right down to the political relationships in the town camp).
However, this narrows the perspective that the film offers – for a local audience in terms of understanding Dujuan and children like him (rather critical right now), and for outside audiences in terms of getting a more balanced picture of what is going on within Alice Springs, the Northern Territory and its systems.
This is not all pretty, far from it, but it is not given a fair representation by the film, including by its use of archival footage. I appreciate, for example, that Stolen Generation experiences are within painful living memory and have left a destructive legacy for many. But are outside audiences (meaning international, including the UN, to whom the film has already been presented) going to understand the significant changes in this area and the attempts at redress, again however imperfect?
The selective focus also narrows the field of action for change that the film’s production and impact team is promoting. The two goals emphasised at the screening are to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 (Australia’s 10 is one of the lowest in the world, the Royal Commission recommended 12, but 14 is urged for all countries by the UN) and to establish schools for Aboriginal kids run by Aboriginal people. (They are fundraising for one on Dujuan’s family homeland at Sandy Bore. Aboriginal leadership was the original rationale for setting up Yipinrinya School, of course, but the film shows that this has not been sustained.)
Both of these goals are worthy, but they fall short of answering some of the critical questions raised by Dujuan’s story.