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Maya Newell and the documentary everyone is talking about: Gayby Baby

Maya Newell’s feature documentary Gayby Baby follows four children with gay parents – Ebony, Gus, Graham and Matt – on their tricky path through adolescence against the backdrop of a growing marriage equality debate.

We talk to Maya about this very personal project and why it was important to give those children caught up in the debate a voice of their own. 

After screening to sold out sessions at Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film FestivalGayby Baby opens in select cinemas. We ask Maya few questions about the making of Gayby Baby and why this was an important story for her to tell.

Screen Australia: This project clearly has great personal significance for you, when did you get the idea?

Maya Newell: Charlotte Mars (the producer) and I sat down about four years ago in a café in Darlinghurst and decided to make a film to give a voice to kids growing up in same-sex parented families.

Over the last few years, debates over marriage equality have risen in volume and conservatives continually bring kids and families front and centre to their arguments. Many politicians repeat the argument that marriage is about having children and all children need both a mother and father. I hear them whisper, “What will happen if we allow gays to marry? What if they have kids? Would that be ok?”

Even though gay couples can’t marry, they have been having children for generations already. My mothers have been together for over 30 years and there are plenty of kids like me. From Argentina to Israel, from South Africa to New Zealand and from Iceland to America, hundreds of thousands of kids from queer families are growing up and spreading their wings. In fact, we are in the midst of a gayby boom.

SA: You first made Growing Up Gayby through the ABC/Screen Australia Opening Shot program. At what point did you envisage it becoming a feature length doco? How was the process of making the short different to making the feature?

MN: Charlotte and I actually began making Gayby Baby – the feature, prior to the Opening Shot series. The TV half-hour Growing Up Gayby approached the subject matter with a slightly more journalistic style with the inclusion of political columnist Janet Albrechtsen, Christian Democrat Fred Nile and also adult Gaybies who were old enough to be able to reflect on their childhood in a much more layered and evaluative way. In Growing Up Gayby, I was also coerced into being a subject in the film, which made me quite uncomfortable as I much prefer to be behind the lens! Victoria Midwinter Pitt, the Executive Producer of Growing Up Gayby, shared a wealth of advice when it came to interviewing subjects and narration in storytelling.

In comparison, our vision for making Gayby Baby was much less didactic as the observational style allowed for a nuance and subtext that is sometimes lost in the pace of television.

It was a real pleasure to be able to make these two companion films as it taught us the strength of both formats. In this day, it is a rare opportunity to be able to make two very different films on a similar theme, but the process really compounded the impact of both.

Making Growing Up Gayby allowed us to crystalize our messaging and really surround ourselves within the queer family space, which in the long run provided the background and research for Gayby Baby.

SA: Having watched the film, I was struck by how it is just as a much a general portrayal of how children see the world, as it is a specific portrayal of the children of gay parents. Were you surprised by how mature and insightful they were?

MN: I think in general our society does not look to the insight of children as a worthwhile point of view. Children are intelligent in ways that many adults are not. Children have wit, agency and a sense of morality that is hard for us all to return to. As Matt says in the film “Sometimes kids have better ideas than adults” and I think there is a lot of wisdom in that.

Matt, Ebony, Gus and Graham are constantly surprising me… and continue to do so.

SA: How did you select the families you followed?

MN: It was a long process where we went all around Australia and interviewed a myriad of kids. Part of this was casting, but it was also a process of research to discover what Gaybies today are experiencing and what themes the film should include.

All the children in the film were a) happy to be followed around for a few years (that casts aside most individuals); b) they have that indescribable thing, something like a sparkle in their eye or a charismatic grin; c) they are all on the cusp of change, there was some growing up that was in the midst of happening; and d) it felt like home being in theirs.

SA: Gayby Baby was so popular at Sydney Film Festival they added on an extra session – how did you feel when you found out?

MN: Before Sydney Film Festival we were still unsure if Australia was going to like the film, so to be offered a special extra screening due to popular demand…it was wonderful. We make films for people, so to see a positive uptake makes it all worthwhile.

SA: 2015 has been a great year for Australian films experimenting with different release strategies, how did you come up with the idea to screen Gayby Baby in high schools on Wear It Purple day?

MN: Charlotte and I were a part of Good Pitch2 Australia last October. For those who don’t know it is probably one of the most exciting recent Australian film industry initiatives. The event aims to marry social impact documentary to campaigns of change. We had the opportunity to pitch our education and outreach goals to a packed Sydney Opera House audience and dream big.

One area we were particularly excited about was promoting family diversity in the Australian education system. When I was at school we didn’t talk about different family structures – it was assumed that everyone had a mum and a dad. I believe that every child has the right to see their family structures reflected and celebrated in their education. There is a certain level of validation that occurs.

So after speaking so passionately at the Good Pitch2 Australia about our plans to use the film to promote the diversity of Australian families, Charlotte had an idea. She gets a cheeky glint in her eye when there lies simmering a completely outrageous idea. Charlotte’s brilliant mind is not limited by what has been done by most, and I am usually the one that keeps our collective feet on planet earth. So she spurts “why don’t we screen Gayby Baby in 500 school halls across the country… before we go to cinemas!”. I rolled my eyes thinking of the work involved in screening an unreleased film and convincing school principals nationally to set up their halls for an unknown little Australian documentary. With Wear It Purple Day approaching, a national day for supporting LGBTIQ youth, we saw the opportunity and decided to take the plunge. This scenario is quite representative of our entire filmmaking process that could be characterised by slightly outlandish and spontaneous measures, from crowd funding $100,000 to theatrically distributing a film independently as first time filmmakers. Why not go to schools before we hit cinemas. After all, this is a film about kids, for kids.

What has been wonderful in the release process, and has been enabled by the Good Pitch2 Australia, is that we have been able to intertwine social impact into every layer of our release. The idea that the voices of kids in same-sex families can shift the national dialogue around marriage equality, and also make a better inclusive world for kids growing up in our schools has given us the energy to carry on.

Gayby Baby will be in cinemas from Thursday 2 September across Australia. Many of these screenings include special Q&A sessions. Find out where and when the film screens near you.