Maya Newell’s first feature-length documentary is a personal story. Growing up with two mums as her parents, her whole life she has watched the ongoing debate among politicians on whether same-sex parents were good for kids as if her real-life situation were hypothetical. Gayby Baby follows four children on the verge of puberty and growing up in a same-sex parent family, and is her way of getting the voices often left out of the debate heard.
The kids in the film are each living a very ordinary existence, and perhaps that’s the biggest statement the film could be making. Rather than focussing on the political landscape of gay marriage, the film is much more a story about parenting and the kids learning about themselves as they grow up. It’s telling the story of four Australian families whose struggles and triumphs are shared by the vast majority of Australians. In 90 minutes, we see that it doesn’t matter whether your parents are gay or straight the formula of a family is the same.
I spoke to Maya in August about Gayby Baby ahead of its release, and how she and her team are using the film as a tool for social change.
Anna Horan: Hi Maya, What are you up to this morning?
Maya Newell: We had a really good morning on RN with Fran Kelly. She’s really great, she’s a bit of an idol, so you know, swooning. But it was really nice. Tomorrow night we’re hosting a panel discussion at Parliament House. We’re bringing adults who have been raised in same-sex families to speak about their experiences to appeal to senators, so we were talking about that which was pretty cool.
Awesome. Well, that was going to be one of my questions. You were going to host some private screenings this month, is that what’s happening as well?
So basically, we’re releasing the film in the way in the way lots of films are released, we’re going to cinemas and stuff. But at the same time we’re intertwining education and outreach that are these goals that we have to use the film as a tool for social change really.
And so one of those things that we’re doing, mostly because the political climate is so perfect in a way, is to get the voices of the kids out there in the realm of policy change. We are taking a group of adults who were raised in same-sex families to Parliament and we’re hosting an event that is co-hosted with the Parliamentary Friends group LGBTI Australians, which is Warren Entsch, Janet Rice and Graham Perrett. We’re creating this really safe place for MP senators and their staff to come and ask questions of kids who have really lived the experience, and we’re just going to share our stories of our upbringing.
I suppose that really came out of feeling that there are lots of politicians at the moment in particular who are talking about kids in same-sex families in the hypothetical. You know, we’re hearing them say, “What if we allow them to marry? What if they have kids?” And it’s like, well actually, you know, I’m 27 and my parents have been together for 30 years, and there’s lots of kids out there and no one’s asking us what we think. So that’s sort of the backbone for why we’re doing the parliamentary screenings but at the same time it was also sort of genesis for making the film. I wanted to get the kids voices out there.
Was the social change element, doing all this kind of political kind of stuff, something you’d always planned on doing, or did it just kind of happen organically afterward?
It wasn’t something we were planning on. The film is actually not political at all. It doesn’t talk about marriage equality… it’s just being released in this time where it’s politically relevant, but we didn’t want the film to be an advocacy tool at all, and I hope that no one thinks it is.
I saw it at MIFF and got a bit teary.
It’s funny when people say that because I’m really happy that you were moved with it but that’s not right response that someone that they’ve cried.
Oh, they were more happy tears.
Happy tears are much better than sad tears.
Getting back to talking about the film. You touched on it a bit, but the theme of Gayby Baby is more about parenting and its struggles and triumphs than it is about the parents relationships. And the story as well is giving a voice to these kids like it hasn’t before.
I suppose I would really like to say that this is a film about four young adults who are traversing on coming puberty and they just happen to have gay parents. I don’t think that the world, especially at the moment when we’ve got really polarised views around families, we don’t need to prove to people that our families are perfect or normal in order to be seen as equal. We just need to get these stories out. In that way, like Matt loved football, Ebony is trying to get into a new highschool, Graham is moving to Fiji and learning how to read, and Gus loves wrestling. We wanted to make a film that had a touchpoint and connectivity for everyone who watches, everyone who has grown up, everyone who has grown up in a family. Parenting is universal, and in some ways I think that what I’ve learned making the film is parenting is really hard, and it’s hard for everyone. I hope that people will watch our film and realise and be honest that parenting is really hard and that [the idea] our parents’ gender being the opposite relieves our worries is kind of hilarious. We’re having this conversation about who should be allowed to parent when we should supporting everyone prepared to raise healthy kids. It’s hard!
I don’t think I completely answered your question but actually Jen, who is Gus’s mother in the film, at the Q&A in Melbourne, you might have seen it, she said it really beautifully, she said: ‘This is not about marriage equality for me, it’s about parenting equality.’ And at the heart it’s a film about parenting.
As you were saying, this debate kind of just does reduce families down to simplistic 2D figures. But because of that, it does inadvertently become woven into children’s identities whether they like it or not. You know, they may be saying ‘my parents’ sexuality isn’t the most interesting thing about me,’ but some people still might frame them as a ‘gayby baby’.
That’s right. And I think what’s really exciting is that, you know, I’ve grown up saying that my family is normal and the same as everyone else, but in actual fact I hope that children now can grow up and say, ‘I’m a gayby’ and it can be with a sense of pride. Of course you’re right it’s not someone’s entire identity, but for everyone else upbringing informs who we become and it should be something that’s acknowledged but is not all encompassing.
Yeah, and obviously it’s something that’s affected your filmmaking – making a film that’s so personal to you – how has people’s attitude to your growing up affected you and your identity do you think?
I think it’s the same for everyone, the environment you come from totally forms who you are and what you turn out to become. For me, I think that my life has been spotted with many moments that are unique I suppose about having same-sex parents. That ranges from being aware that not everyone likes your parents or family or sometimes its best not to come out that’s best for your family in different arenas, to having an amazing time riding on big floats at Mardi Gras every year covered in glitter. I think maybe not sure I’m answering your questions again, but all of those experiences make up who we are. It would be terrible to disassociate from any of those things because it’s who you are.
In Australia we don’t have same-sex marriage and I don’t think it’s even really talked about in school. We don’t really talk about it, and when we do it comes out in really stilted ways that we don’t really have control over.
I think what’s really exciting is that more and more, the world that we live in, Australia, and most parts of the Western world, is much more accepting to grow up in a same-sex family. We have changes in technology, we have changes in laws, we have changes in public opinion that have all led to this Western world Gayby boom. A friend of mine who has same-sex parents as well says, ‘it’s a great time to be a gayby,’ ‘cos it really is. It’s really fantastic. In fact in 2010, the majority of laws in Australia were changed to make it equal for same-sex attracted couples. Marriage equality is one of the few that remains. [As well as] same sex adoption and surrogacy laws, and probably more laws around male parents. So things are changing, and I think it’s nice also to talk about the things that have a positive effect.
For example, I grew up in an inner western (Sydney) school and there it was really cool to have same sex gay parents. There was actually a lot of social capital which was gained from having same sex parents, ‘cos I was running around at Mardi Gras, and they were all envious. It’s also an exciting time to look at how public opinion is shifting and creating a really great world for this generation growing up, and sometimes we focus on the negative things a lot, and what our newspapers say and what our TV and what our politicians are saying, but I think on the ground we’re getting hugely, vastly better.
Moving on from all the political side of things… There’s that famous quote, ‘Never work with children or animals’ and it’s because they’ll show you up. Were there any moments from the kids that surprised you or changed the way you were making the film?
I love working with kids. You know I think that we don’t look to children enough. As Matt says in the film, “Sometimes kids have better ideas than adults” and it’s so true. In a documentary, you have to be aware that everything is always changing. You can’t control anyone’s life, you have to just go along with it and follow what happens. So in that sense, children are just as bad as adults. But I think what’s beautiful about working with kids is that in that age group in that beautiful in-between zone between childhood and adulthood. All the kids are 11 and 12, which means they have maintained that innocence of the world and that clarity of morals, but also are beginning to see the world around them for what it is and their place in it. [They’re] discovering who they’re going to be and what their opinions are going be. I find it an absolute joy to work with kids, and I think I will continue to do that in my career.
And is that why you chose to focus on 11-12 year olds?
Yeah, I think it’s one of the first documentaries to tell the perspective of kids in same sex families, and therefore those kids needed to be old enough to have an opinion and speak for themselves. They couldn’t be sort of under that age.
Because in Growing Up Gayby, you also spoke to kids who were closer to your own age, and I was wondering what the differences in experiences or if they had very different opinions about things, just growing up in different times.
I don’t think we’re… always on this linear kind of sort of line of progress because some of the experiences of the adults who are my age were very similar to kids growing up now it just depends on where you’re living. If you’re living in a big city, yes it’s getting better, if you’re living in a tiny country town where you’re the only gay family there, then it’s hard. There are still lots of similarities between the older kids and younger kids. The reason we chose to make the feature film entirely observational of young kids was that I think that when you’re older you have this ability to reflect and kind of evaluate your childhood. Whereas we wanted to make a film with that childhood with the children as it was happening. Therefore younger kids are still living with their families and still surrounded by these issues that they were facing every day, so it wasn’t an intellectual experience it was a purely emotional experience.
And you’ve said you want to tell the universal stories of underrepresented people in your films. What kind of stories are thinking of or hoping to explore in the future?
I think that will be an ongoing theme in my films. That’s the beautiful power of storytelling and of documentaries that have this rare ability to meet people who potentially don’t have the capacity to tell their story or share their experiences. [With documentaries] you can connect large audiences to those people, and I find that sometimes people who live on the fringes of society sometimes hold a lot of wisdom.
Gayby Baby is currently showing in selected cinemas and special screenings across Australia. To find out how you can organise a public or private event for your organisation, employee base, or community group visit tugg.com. You can follow the filmmakers on Facebook and Twitter.