The Sonic City
Hot Docs: Interview with Maya Newell, Director of ‘Gayby Baby’
Casey: Today on The Sonic City we have a very special guest, director Maya Newell of the recent documentary film Gayby Baby. As an award-winning filmmaker, Newell’s recent project has provided an intimate look into the lives of four Australian families. While each of these families are immensely unique in their goals, dreams, and day-to-day lives, they have all shared the unifying experience of having same-sex parents raising children in a nation that to date, still doesn’t legally recognize same-sex marriages.
We’re very excited to have you join us today, Maya! Welcome to the Sonic City!
Maya: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Casey: I found this to be a very unique, insightful film with much to discuss. To begin, for our readers, tell us a little bit about the film, and what inspired you to undertake this project.
Maya: I had grown up with two moms, and when I was a kid, there were not really many media representations of such families. I see so many kids growing up now and I wanted to make a film that I really wanted to see growing up as a child. At the same time, over the last five years in Australia, we’ve had a lot of debate over same-sex marriage. I’ve seen politicians yelling across tables, and equally confronting messages being pushed from the left, and the gay community.
In all of that it seems that the main comment that a lot of conservatives had about same-sex marriage is that marriage is about children, and that children deserve a mother and a father, and I was like “Hey, there are hundreds of thousands of kids around the world.” I’m twenty-six, and I’ve grown up with two moms, but no one’s asked me what my experience of growing up was. I really felt that there was a voice missing in that discussion, so I set out to find some incredible kids that would share their opinions, and really let people into our families. Not tell them what to think, but really show them these kids, and let them make up their own minds about our families. That’s sort of the genesis of the project.
Casey: Part of the effectiveness of your film in my opinion was that each family you profiled contrasted one another in numerous aspects. How did you come to select the participants of this film?
Maya: It was a long process. It was kind of a bit like casting, I suppose. A lot of the gay press came together in Australia and put out call-outs, and I literally just went around the country and sat down and chatted with probably about forty to fifty families and kids, and just let them talk to me. While it was a casting process, it was also about me connecting with kids who were younger than my generation, and seeing what they had to say, and therefore what type of issues maybe should be a part of this story. The gay community are really brilliant at coming together cause they’ve done it for so long; to fight or for all sorts of things. When word gets out, it gets out, and we had a really broad spectrum of children and families who were willing to be part of the project.
Casey: I definitely thought that the diversity you had was a real asset to this project. Some of your previous projects such as “Two”, “Frames & Lovers”, “At Least I don’t Shoot Blanks”, and “Clown in the Crowd”, appear to explore overlooked and/or misunderstood experiences of the human condition. Is this a theme you attempt to emphasize in your work, and do you feel that the families of same-sex couples are often misunderstood or misrepresented in your country’s media and culture?
Maya: I suppose the first half of that question is yes. I’m very interested in telling the stories of the marginalized or the misunderstood. I think I have generally, and maybe this is not so much about this feature, but in my previous work, I really enjoyed getting to know people who were maybe misjudged or cast aside from mainstream for whatever reasons. I think often they’re the people that reflect the most back at ourselves, and therefore are sometimes the best people to understand in order to connect with some of the most common faucets of humanity. That’s something that I’ve really enjoyed doing in my film making.
I totally think that children in same-sex families are misunderstood. Not even misunderstood, but I think for lots of people, they’ve actually never even considered our existence. They think that they’re being really radical when they say that if we allow same-sex couples to marry, maybe they’ll have kids. It’s like “Hello, we exist already and don’t need your permission to exist.” I think in that way, sharing the voices of kids has been a beautiful thing.
Casey: Definitely. I have found that often in the media. Even over here in North America, some have almost denied that same-sex couples actually have families. I remember during the last United States president election, Mitt Romney claimed that he didn’t know same-sex couples had families. Everyone said that was absolutely ridiculous. People didn’t know if he actually believed those words he said, or if it was a political ploy. I think you definitely bring an important point into focus: that the experiences of children of same-sex couples are not only misrepresented, but quite often almost ignored.
Maya: Definitely. This a real horrible example, and I hate to give it anymore airtime, but I’m going to tell it to you anyway. On Mardi Gras which is a really big night for our kids and our families over here, as it’s our big pride event in Sydney. On that night, there was a campaign launched by a very conservative Christian group which was actually called ‘Think of a Child’, and they played these ads on all of our main national networks, and it depicted two gay men with a child. They went and they zoomed up close on her crying. It was like “equality for adults, what about equality for kids”? We were horrified, this was so evil, especially on Mardi Gras, which is about celebrating our families. So yeah, I think that ignorance is the biggest battle that I’m looking at combating with this film.
Casey: A particular aspect of this film that I found quite relevant in today’s climate was the fact that it really placed an emphasis on the day-to-day lives of the children of same-sex couples. I felt that this aspect of the film had quite a humanizing aspect. Do you feel that your film could play a role in bringing down barriers that some attempt to place between hetero and same-sex couple families?
Maya: We didn’t want to make this an ad for same-sex families and make out that everything’s perfect. I think it’s just as damaging to present a picture-perfect image of our families. In that way, it’s really just a story about parenting. Hopefully it overcomes the same-sexness of the kids being defining by their parents sexuality. The way in my opinion to connect people is to show the commonalities. People connect not when we’re all happy all the time, but when they see that it’s hard to discipline a child, or it’s hard to give freedom to their imagination, or it’s hard to sit around the dinner table and have small talk. It’s a film that shows the ups and downs of family and all of those nuances of what it is to be in family. I think it’s unhelpful for everyone to pretend that were perfect.
When I was growing up, there was a pressure to be to be like “My family perfect, my family is brilliant.” There wasn’t a place to talk about the challenges because everyone would think those challenges were because my parents are gay. Whereas of course it was just about growing up, and hitting puberty, not having independence, all those things. I think that this film shows that. We’re not pretending anymore. It’s much more exciting to show that our families are the same. They’re good and bad, and joyous. Parenting is all of those things.
Casey: An interesting scene in the film included a highly publicized dinner and discussion between one of the featured families and the then prime minister Julia Gillard, who also as leader of the Labour party, opposed same-sex marriage. I have always found it somewhat puzzling that politicians across varying political ideologies in Australia have been so reluctant to accept such an idea over the past decade. At the same time, I have also seen a rather strong LGBTQ movement with many allies in this country. As someone with a first-hand account of life in Australia, do you feel that Australians are supportive of marriage equality, and do you feel that this will be achieved in the near future?
Maya: Yeah, totally. It’s just gonna happen, but when? Numerous polls in terms of public opinion have been done and it’s already been proven millions of times over that Australians want marriage equality. Over seventy-five percent of Australians want marriage equality, but for some reason, the people in power have this idea that they’ll lose votes or become unpopular if they allow the gays to marry. I don’t know why that is, but we still don’t have majority vote. Our current prime minister won’t allow a conscience vote in our parliament to allow the MP’s to decide for themselves. When Matt (from the film) went and saw Julia Gillard, even though she was not willing to be the leader on the issue, she acknowledged herself that it was inevitable. I think that the most important thing for our country now is just not to give up. People have been fighting for this for a long time, so that’s probably the hardest thing.
Casey: While we have had same-sex marriage here for a little over a decade now, many remember a time during the 1990s when a human rights bill for same-sex couples was voted down here in Ontario’s provincial parliament. Opinions and stances on issues can definitely evolve and change. It can happen quite radically and quite fast; especially in our time, so I definitely agree with never giving up.
Maya: That’s Right. One of the goals that we had with this film. We went through a process called The Good Pitch which is about marrying documentaries with social change, and philanthropists and change makers all around the country. One of the things that we’re going to be doing with the film in the next couple months is privately showing the film to different MP’s and people in power that will have to vote on this issue in next year or so. This will be to give them a non-threatening look and to inform them more on kids in our families. I suppose we have a big life for this film in terms of its audience, but we’ve got some other goals in terms of political change, and also in the education sector in terms of informing kids and teachers in schools about family diversity and using it as a tool to promote family diversity.
Casey: I feel that the film will be very effective in that way, and a great tool to engage social change. Any final thoughts to add for our readers?
Maya: I think in the end, I’ll throw back to the kids. I think for me, I’ve just realized how incredible these four kids are in this film. I’ve learned so much from them in the past four years and sometimes I’ve come back to the line from Ebony, who’s one of the girls in the film. She’s eleven. In my first interview, I asked her “What is a family to you?” She just turned around and she said “The people who make you who you are today are your family” and I just thought that was so wise. That’s really what the film’s about.
Casey: Thank you Maya. It’s been both an honour and a privilege speaking with you this afternoon. It’s an excellent insightful documentary. I highly recommend it, and I’m sure that our readers will really enjoy it. From across the globe here in Toronto, we wish to applaud your efforts for equality. Keep up the great work, and we look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!
Maya: Wonderful, and Hopefully I’ll get to meet some people at the screening, so come on down!
Be sure to check out the trailer below, and follow the links for additional information and tickets!
About the Author
Casey Robertson is a genderqueer human rights activist, musician ,composer, and graduate student researching musicology and cultural theory. In recent years he has been involved with the committees of LGBTQA projects such as the Durham Pride Prom, Allies for Equality, and Queerstock Canada. He also served as a member of the board of directors for PFLAG Durham Region from 2012-2014, where he was a member of the peer2peer support team and a facilitator for monthly sharing evenings. Casey currently resides in the Church-Wellesley Village of Toronto and enjoys spending his free time scoring independent film projects and playing with his band Liberty Street, while on the constant search to discover new artists of all expressive forms. Follow Casey on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at CaseyRobertson.net