Maya Newell is an Australian filmmaker with a focus on directing documentaries. Her award-winning short “Two” screened at festivals internationally and she was awarded Best New Documentary Talent of Australia at AIDC, Adelaide Film Festival. Her recent film, “Growing Up Gayby,” made in collaboration with Charlotte Mars, broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 2013. Newell has spent the last four years filming in the homes of children being raised by gay and lesbian parents. The “Gayby Baby” team is now rolling out the first stages of a social-impact campaign to promote family diversity in schools and communities. (Press materials)
“Gayby Baby” will premiere at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival on October 10.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
MN: Told from the perspective of the kids, “Gayby Baby” is an intimate, often humorous immersion into the politics of parenting and the nuances of family life. The film follows four eleven-year-olds — Graham, Matt, Ebony and Gus — who are all traversing oncoming puberty as the world around them wrestles with marriage equality and whether these children are at risk.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
MN: The last decade has seen an incredible shift. For the first time in history, same-sex couples can realistically expect to have a family. When one of my mothers, Donna, came out to her mother, my grandmother’s first thought was despair. She was distraught because she so wanted to have grandchildren. Her only daughter being a lesbian was a real deal-breaker.
Changes in technology, policy and opinion have led to a worldwide gayby boom. There are hundreds of thousands gaybies growing up and spreading their wings. Producer Charlotte Mars and I wanted to make a film that represented the voice of this new generation of kids.
In addition, over the last few years, debates over marriage equality have risen in volume in Australia and all over the world. The conservative voice continually brings kids and families front and center to their arguments, repeating the argument that “Marriage is about having children and all children need both a mother and father.” But even though gay couples can’t marry, they have been having children for generations already. I know, because I am one of those kids.
I increasingly felt mad that my voice, and those of kids in families like mine, were missing from the debate, and so we decided to make a film that explored and presented the gayby voice.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
MN: One challenge during the making of “Gayby Baby” arose in how to represent the gay and lesbian family unit. I was raised by two lesbian mums and have grown up always defending the right of my family to exist. For years, I wanted to project the image that “my family is the same, our families are perfect,” for fear that the outside world might blame our imperfections on parents’ sexuality and challenge their right to be parents at all.
We could have given into public pressure and made a film that was an ad for queer families. But I realized that it wasn’t doing justice to my family, or any members of the gayby community, to assert our normalcy. As a result, the representation of these four families is honest and, at times, uncomfortable in “Gayby Baby.” Loving families struggle with competing needs and values, parents overreact and sometimes kids get let down. Same-sex families are not perfect, but they are no less perfect than any other kind of family.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
MN: I hope that in watching this film, audiences will be inspired to interrogate “what is family” and how and by whom it is defined.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
MN: Don’t take too much advice — everyone will want to give it to you. Just trust your own instincts. We have endured centuries of male-told narratives, and now the world is hungry for your stories.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
MN: Many people think that “Gayby Baby” is an “important” film or a “worthy” film due to the political context in which it was made. I daresay that documentary films are often put into that category. When we sat in the cinema at HotDocs Film Festival in Toronto for the premiere of “Gayby Baby,” laughter rung out from the audience as the kids onscreen completely disarmed viewers with their raw honesty and smarts.
I hope that audiences seek out this film and many other documentaries for entertainment, just as much as they are driven by a need to learn more about the world around them.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
MN: Prior to making “Gayby Baby,” Charlotte and I had not made a feature film, and so it was a far cry to expect to receive funding from traditional screen bodies. We had shot a large percentage of the film with no budget and then decided to crowdfund, as there were some corners that we just couldn’t cut.
We worked incredibly hard for months in preparation and in a five-week campaign we raised $110,000, which at the time was the most raised by any documentary in Australia. This in turn unlocked budget from our national screen agency and a number of philanthropic contributions.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
MN: It is too hard to select a favorite, but one film I watched recently was Teodora Mihai’s “Waiting for August.” In it, a 13-year-old girl in Romania is made to play adult and care for her younger siblings as her mother travels away to earn enough money to feed them all. There is a carefully considered sensibility in the presence of the camera and intelligent choices in how to represent the characters that I found captivating to watch.
The film is harrowing yet hopeful and compels us to feel, love and better understand families as complex collections of individuals. Not only is it a film about women; the art feels uniquely like a woman-directed film.