Her controversy-stirring doco, Gayby Baby, charts the lives of Australian kids growing up with same-sex mums and dads—a topic that’s pretty close to her home: “I grew up with gay parents,” she says. “It was strange that politicians were talking about it as a hypothetical concept, as if it hadn’t happened already, when there have been generations of LGBTI people who have had families.”
The idea for Gayby (her first full-length feature) was formed in response to “negative” political rhetoric about her own community. She and her producer (and partner), Charlotte Mars, spent three-and-a-half years compiling the extensive and intimate footage that makes up this distinct record. To prep they interviewed around 40 Australian kids, but the final project follows the stories of just four: Matt, Gus, Graham and Ebony. Despite being such a small group, they represent a plethora of distinct personal perspectives on what it’s like to grow up in this community.
“We were very conscious that we couldn’t represent everything, but we wanted to have a diverse representation,” says Newell. The stories she chose to explore correspond to a range of hot-button issues that politicians are concerned with: “Matt’s is about religion” (his gay mum is intensely religious but his pastor is not especially love-thy-neighbourly to her); “Gus’s is about gender” (he’s a diehard WWE fan while his mums object to the sport’s testosterone-fuelled violence); Ebony’s is about social acceptance (she lives in rough Parramatta and wants to move to the more cosmopolitan Newtown both to sing and to find likeminded peers); and Graham’s, in which his two gay fathers move him to more sexually conservative Fiji, is mostly concerned with “adoption” and self-acceptance.
“I think the worst thing we could have done is to make an ad for gay families.”
While using kids to prove a point against a discourse that, a-hem, uses kids to make a point could seem a touch ironic, Newell was conscious of this potential problem when she was making the film: “I think the worst thing we could have done is to make an ad for gay families,” she says.
Instead she teases out the complexities and tensions below the surface of these families’ lives. Newell’s choice, to frame it insistently from child-height, using interviews with the kids to tell the story is part of this strategy: “there’s not any moment when you’re higher than kids’ eye-levels,” she says.
The lack of an authoritarian voice to afford legitimacy to any one viewpoint forms part of her Newell’s larger aim—she won’t let the political overshadow the aesthetic shape of her film. Similarly, the children’s thoughts, dreams and ideas about themselves shape the trajectory of the stories, to the active exclusion of the voices of adult authorities; says Newell, “we didn’t even interview parents”. We hear the exasperated Gus beg and plead self-righteously against his mum’s totally unfair reluctance to take him to see the wrestling; we see the frustrated and confused Matt grapple to understand the conflict between his mother’s religious fervour and the homophobic overtones of its teachings; we observe as the reserved, stoic Ebony tries to cope with social exclusion through the escapism of music. “We were very concerned to show both the faults of people and their good sides, their complexity, so I guess then it’s not a very good advocacy film,” Newell says. “Parenting is very hard, gay families are just as imperfect as straight families; we wouldn’t be able to show a lot of what we saw if we were just making an ad.”
“We were very concerned to show both the faults of people and their good sides, their complexity,” Newell says. “Parenting is very hard, gay families are just as imperfect as straight families.”
Newell was the only crew member on location during filming, both out of financial necessity, and so as to encourage the subjects to be comfortable, honest and direct with the camera. “When you are one person you have the power to do that,” Newell says, and she entrenched herself in the lives of her subjects to do so; “I was there with them when they opened their eyes on Christmas morning,” she says, “I was there for the insignificant times when things weren’t happening as well; not many people are willing, or able, to dedicate to that.” Newell became such an everyday part of children’s lives that when on Ebony’s first day of high school someone asked her who the lady filming her was, “she said, that’s my sister,” Newell says. “I literally embedded myself in their lives.”
When one of the kids is shown talking to a TV news crew about talking to the prime minister, his posture stiffens as he shifts into PR-advocate and gives his media-ready sound bite; but through the lens of Newell’s film we see him let out a sigh and slouch back to normal afterwards. “It’s not the same when you have lots of bodies in front of them,” Newell says, and it is at this moment of the film we are reminded of the subtle intimacy that Gayby provides, offering a relatively clear window into these lives.
Gayby Baby works as more than merely an advocacy tool, or a means-to-an-end attempt to sell the concept of the gay family to unconvinced audiences. It’s also a warm portrait of “family and adolescence”, that’s as intimate as it is illuminating; a potent, poignant record of our times, and what it means to have a family rn. As Newell says, we live in a time where “these kids have stories and can tell them themselves.” And in Gayby Baby she lets them have their say.
Images courtesy of TheGaybyProject.com.