Maya Newell is a filmmaker known for her feature documentaries gayby baby (2015), who described the experiences of four children in same-sex families, and In my blood it flows (2019), following the life of a 10-year-old Arrernte healer and hunter, and the tensions between his traditional culture and non-indigenous justice. His latest feature, which comes out this month on Netflix, is The dream life of Georgie Stoneportraying the famous transgender activist at a critical moment in her personal life.
Newell decided to talk about the famous Australian Aboriginal artist Tracey Moffatt, in particular her cinematic collage work in the Assembly : The complete cut series (1999-2015, with Gary Hillberg), which edits feature-length sequences together to form a tacit commentary on love, race and society. She also cites the 1994 photographic series scared for lifein which retro-style domestic snapshots, featuring children in traumatic moments, are accompanied by tongue-in-cheek captions.
You have nominated a few plays; how could you see them?
A lot of Assembly the series came out when I was in high school; I think it was in 2003 that Moffatt released To like. I was fascinated by this idea of collage, and collage in cinema. I really like collage myself; I spent hours with Life magazines and National geographic cut out words and pictures and put them together. So when I saw what Tracey had done with a film pastiche, it was quite revealing, and I set about making a film in that style, which was one of my first films, like an exploration from collage to cinema.
For those who do not know these films, on To like she takes all the many moments of the love story, through the beautiful subtlety of desire, to commitment, to the monotony of relationships, to betrayal, to disgust and ultimately to regaining power over the woman who takes a gun and destroy the patriarchy – or its partner. Then she twists them to have this beautiful rebellious side. She manages to have this beautiful arc, which goes from entrapment to repression and a kind of freedom. I love this story. Essentially, that’s probably the base storyline of all my films.
She seems interested in undoing things: taking the canonical, the tropes, the classic modes, and then messing them up.
Messing them around, rejecting them, showing us not only the links but highlighting all the gaps and silences, especially the in-between. It’s very beautiful, what she managed to do with all these films. What I did with my grade 11 project was I took the idea of confinement and borders and borders in the history of cinema, through time, and I made a Moffatt-style movie that went from marginalized people – asylum seekers, people with mental health issues, First Nations people – to being trapped and then bursting out and escaping and climbing walls and breaking down fences . Which was kind of a stupid first movie, but I thought a lot about how you can create context by tapping into those little recognizable moments across our cinematic history and then create meaning.
Another thing that spoke to me is the idea that there’s a very strong central message, but it’s never at the expense of poeticism or innovation or some kind of shrewd approach to the film. Whereas in many films or documentaries, we are made to choose: do we make a important movie or is it high art? With Dream LifeIt’s a really topical conversation about how young trans people are treated in society and Georgie’s willingness to fight to be able to be herself, but Georgie wanted to do something beautiful.
We came across this amazing film archive of her story that her parents took since she and her twin brother, Harry, were born. When you see and feel how she talks, since she was a little girl, her free will is undeniable. As a filmmaker, this is your challenge: how do we show this? She curls her hair behind her ear and there are five times at different ages when she does this, so this is it, yeah, a Moffatt-style flutter of images and repetitions that share meaning beyond simple Georgia struggle in political battles.
Unfortunately, the story of the documentary is that we don’t give creative control to the people whose life is portrayed: it’s the artist’s interpretation of their life. It can cause harm. Georgie’s title is “Creative Producer” because she was there for all the conversations about what the film would be like, at all stages of the making. It is the intentionality that makes it a question of sharing power. It means that through the process and the making there is a story, as well as what is on screen.
It introduces a politics, wavering from the colonial gaze that only objectifies, only uproots.
In the art world, we understand that the person who handles the camera creates meaning. In the work of Moffatt heaven there was a female gaze watching the men undress, and it’s kind of uncomfortable and scary, but it’s also incredibly rebellious and funny and powerful to be a woman watching this movie.
We all need to give space to our imaginations, the dreams, fantasies and memories that live within us, as they are equally important in allowing our audience to connect and see themselves in someone like Georgie. I think Moffatt knew that too.
She also leans in the dark…
The dark side is really present in his work; it is mysterious. The other work that particularly touched me is his scared for life photographic series. Why did I like it so much? I think it’s because every frame in this series is almost like the beginning of a movie. They’re incredibly cinematic: it’s a single shot and a tiny bit of writing – like the sisters who are punished by cutting the lawn with a pair of scissors, and you know there are 10 millions of stories that could sit around that image, but it’s so unresolved that you think about it for months afterwards. They’re cinematic but also take on that childlike perspective, where being a child intersects with the larger adult world. This has fascinated much of my work: how children exist in an adult world and navigate the politics of society.
I think for all artists there is a push against conflict. You have to have that darkness when you say anything to the world. I see that as the point of art, to open our eyes and allow us to see things from a different perspective, or to undress truths that you wouldn’t be able to see without this story.
It wasn’t intentional but Dream Life is like the third part of a trilogy of films that I have made, shot from the point of view of children. What I like scared for life it’s something we all have in common. Everyone has been a child, everyone has had this beautiful naivety, and at some point, everyone has had that moment when the real world falls apart: those realizations that imprint our identity or restrict our freedom.
Some children become artists! A form of resistance surely.
At the heart of Moffatt’s work there is this heart of insubordination, this playful resistance, which I adore. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to navigate my own work, and I deeply believe that’s the point, to go against societal norms and show a different path.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as “Maya Newell”.
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