A SFS Q & A with Maya Newell, Director of acclaimed new Australian film ‘Gayby Baby’

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After screenings at HotDocs in Toronto, Sydney Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival, Maya Newell’s Gayby Baby has been highly acclaimed by audiences and critics alike and has just been announced as one of the AACTA nominees for Best Feature Length Documentary. 2006 Sydney Film School graduate Newell made Gayby Baby in order to give a voice to the children of same-sex parents as they have a right to be heard through the political climate noise. The film is Newell’s debut feature and will receive a cinema release on September 3.

We have had t​he good fortune to speak to Maya Newell and we thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about Gayby Baby and the ways in which others can learn from her experiences.

Interview and article by Nicole Newton-Plater

Q. Congratulations on Gayby Baby being nominated for an AACTA! You must be absolutely thrilled!
A. Oh, yeah…we are still pinching ourselves! It’s really, really exciting. Also because a lot of the other films nominated are quite large budget films and it feels like we’re The Little Film That Could!

Q. Gayby Baby is such a beautiful film as it goes into the homes of children with same-sex parents and shows that they really are just normal children living what is presently a semi-unique situation. Was this something you strived to do, show the balance between normalcy and unique?
A. Yes, I mean I think this is a question that comes up a lot when people are speaking about our families and that is what is different and what is the same. I think the film really speaks to the idea that, of course our families have all the same banal and intricacies of any of our straight parent counterparts, but at the same time there are a lot of unique and exciting things that happen with gay parents and hopefully we are at a point where we can celebrate those differences. A lot of the time we say that children of gay families are normal and that they are the same as everyone else, but I think we shouldn’t have to say that our families are normal in order to be seen as equal.

Q. You literally spent years with the four families featured in the film. How important was the editing process with all the footage that you had in making sure that what you were trying to say with the film got across to audiences?
A. In documentary I believe that the editing is everything. From writing to beginning to end, the biggest part in writing comes from the editing room. So it’s absolutely essential. We had a really fantastic editor, Rochelle Oshlack who was responsible for Bran Nue Dae and the First Australians series and she just really worked magic on the film and brought a real intimate touch as she has a lot of attention to detail in her editing and I learned a lot from her. At the same time through the whole process we worked in a very collaborative way as we had a lot of input​.​

Billy Marshall Stoneking was the Executive Producer of the film and I believe he has also taught writing at Sydney Film School before. He has accompanied me as a creative companion ever since my first film, Richard which I made at Sydney Film School and every film I have made since. Of course, my producer, Charlotte (Mars), who I suppose is often confronted with and frustrate​d​ by the idea that the producer is not creative because in actual fact we have worked very collaboratively throughout the film. To tell you the truth, I don’t actually know how many hours we had in the end because we don’t really measure it by hours anymore, we measure it by terabytes. ​We probably had at least a hundred hours and we spent almost eight months editing the film so it couldn’t have been that easy!

Q. You, yourself are a child of same-sex parents. Was making the film an emotional experience for you?
A. Yes, definitely. The genesis of the project comes from a place of wanting to speak out and give a voice to the children who grew up in a family like mine. When I was a kid, there was definitely no documentaries about kids growing up in same-sex families and our voice was completely unheard. So one of the beautiful thing​s​ about making the film was I got to spend time with children from same-sex families around the country and I think there was a certain level of connection that was achieved because of my own upbringing. I was able to ask questions which maybe drew connections between my life and theirs. I think that definitely the level of intimacy in the film is largely because of the emotional, personal connection with the subject matter.

Q. Do you believe that it is important to write and make films about something you know or that is close to your heart?
A. I do, and I really like the concept of tribal storytelling. I think that idea really comes from a place of saying something that you care about. It doesn’t necessarily have to be you have same-sex parents and therefore you are making a film about same-sex parents, but as far as you do have an emotional connection to connect with that tribe or group of people who you are trying to represent. You have to authentically want to tell their story, so that while not everyone does that when making films, some of my favourite stories are tribal stories.

Q. In the background of Gayby Baby is the political question of same-sex marriage in Australia, yet the film isn’t about this. What were some of the challenges in making sure that the film wasn’t political?
A. You know, I think we have never denied that the context in which the film was made in is very political and in the end that is the draw card for a lot of people to come and see the film as it is so highly debated in Australia at the moment. However, the film is not political at all. When you watch it, yes it is a film about children growing up with same-sex parents but it is largely a film about parenting and growing up and it connects these pivotal human experiences. I think if audiences are drawn to the cinema because of the political content, I hope they leave the cinema understanding​,​ acknowledging that it is not really a political story, but a story about what connects and what separates us. I think that has been a challenge through the whole making as well, that I believe making an ad for gay families or making something with direct political persuasive techniques is never going to trick anyone because in the 21st century we are very used to advertising and understanding how the media works to convince us of things.

Q. What was your experience like working with children?
A. Oh, they are surprising, amazing, delightful and moving. I have now watched them grow up for over five years so they are now young teenagers and they are part of my family. I think we never give children as much platform as we should as they are very wise. It has really been a delight. They are like my family and I really wouldn’t make a film about anyone who I didn’t respect. So I think we will have that ongoing relationship for the rest of our lives.

Q. What advice would you give to people who are to work with children in film?
A. I think it ​is ​probably similar to anyone you are going to be making a film about, which is just acknowledge that they know what they want. I think with children there is a higher level of attention to the consent process because at every stage of their development they need to be reminded of what they have committed to and the implications to that when they get older. I think as a child and as you grow up you enter into different levels of consent. So that is something we have done in this film. They whole way through we have had conversations about the implications of doing a film between us and the children.

Q. So Gayby Baby has now been part of HotDocs and Sydney Film Festival, and is about to be part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. What is something you have learn​ed about submitting to and getting selected for film festivals?

A. I’ve learn​ed something about film festivals which I didn’t know in my earlier films which is I think that duration of your film really counts. I used to be of the party that “Whatever, my film is 20 minutes long and that’s just the way it should be and they will take it because it is brilliant”, but I think you can really hinder your opportunities for an audience if you do decide to make something of a shorter length. I made a shorter film called Two which was 18 minutes, but if I had probably been less of an egotist and cut it down a little bit it may have gone further. I think if you are making a film which is 20 minutes in a shorts program you are literally making it that much harder for yourself because you are saying your film has to be as good as two people’s other films in that program. It may be brilliant…but you don’t want to stack the odds against yourself.

I think it is natural as a first time film director to take advice from people you know and trust because there is that many thousands of entries so I think it is really good to align one’s self and show what you have made to a more experienced director or producer so they can put a red flag on it to the festival that you are trying to get into. I think that is a really great tip as well.

Q. What are some of the things you have learn​ed from you previous documentaries that you have been able to apply to Gayby Baby?

A. I don’t know if there is that many because every film and every story is its own beast, but you just have to trust your own instinct in everything, not just creatively. Also knowing the industry and your rights in the industry. If something feels funny, it’s normally because something is funny. Work with people you love and respect and not for any other reason.

Q. What is coming up for you next in regards to directing?
A. Well, there are lots of stories that I am excited about making. Gayby Baby is not going to be my last film. So just developing other projects. I am really passionate about documentaries at the moment so I think I am going to be staying within that realm for a little while longer.

Q. What advice would you Gayby-Babygive to people looking to get into documentary filmmaking?
A. Just spend lots of time with people and pay attention to a lot of the amazing things going on in the world. Read the paper, listen to podcasts, be inspired.

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