The Influence

Tracey Moffatt’s rebellious playfulness is a longstanding inspiration for documentary-maker Maya Newell. By Kate Holden.

Maya Newell

Still from Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg’s Other (2010), part of the Montages series, and Maya Newell (below).
Still from Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg’s Other (2010), part of the Montages series, and Maya Newell (below).
Credit: Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York (above), Steve Baccon (below)

Maya Newell is a filmmaker known for her feature-length documentaries Gayby Baby (2015), which portrayed the experience of four children in same-sex families, and In My Blood It Runs (2019), following the life of a 10-year-old Arrernte healer and hunter, and the tensions between his traditional culture and non-Indigenous justice. Her latest feature, which premieres this month on Netflix, is The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone, portraying the well-known transgender activist at a critical moment in her personal life. 

Newell decided to speak about celebrated Australian Indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt, particularly her cinematic collage works in the Montages: The Full Cut series (1999-2015, with Gary Hillberg), which edits together feature film footage to form an unspoken commentary on love, race and society. She also cites the 1994 photographic series Scarred for Life, in which retro-style domestic snapshots, featuring children in traumatic moments, are accompanied by deadpan captions. 

You nominated a few pieces; how did you come to see these?

A lot of the Montage series came out while I was in high school; I think it was 2003 that Moffatt released Love. I was mesmerised by that idea of collage, and collage in cinema. I really love collage myself; I spent hours with Life magazines and National Geographic cutting out words and images and putting them together. So when I saw what Tracey had done with a pastiche of film it was quite revelatory, and I set about making a film in that style, which was one of my first films, as an exploration of collage in film. 

For those who don’t know those films, on Love she takes all of the many moments of the narrative of love, through the beautiful subtlety of desire, to commitment, to the monotony of relationships, to betrayal, through to disgust and eventually pulling the power back on the woman who picks up a gun and destroys the patriarchy – or her partner. Then she twists them to have this beautiful, rebellious edge. She manages to have this beautiful arc, which is from entrapment to pushing back and some kind of freedom. I love that narrative. Essentially, that’s probably the base storyline of all my films. 

She seems interested in undoing things: taking the canonical, the tropes, the classical modes, and then messing them around. 

Messing them around, throwing them back, showing us not just the linkages but highlighting all the gaps and silences, particularly the in-betweenness. It’s very beautiful, what she’s managed to do with all of those films. What I did with my year 11 project was I took the idea of entrapment and boundaries and borders in cinematic history, through time, and made a Moffatt-style film which went from marginalised peoples – asylum seekers, people with mental health issues, First Nations people – being trapped, and then having them burst out and escape and climb the walls and break the fences. Which was a kind of inane first film, but I’ve thought a lot about how you can create context by tapping into these small moments that are recognisable through our cinematic history, and then create meaning. 

Something else that spoke to me is the idea that there’s a very strong core message, but it’s never at the cost of poeticism or innovation or a kind of artful approach to the film. Whereas in a lot of film or documentary we’re made to choose: are we making an important film or is it high art? With Dreamlife, it’s a really topical conversation about how young trans people are treated in society and Georgie’s push to fight to be able to be herself, but Georgie wanted to make something that was beautiful. 

We stumbled on this incredible filmed archive of her history that her parents have taken since she and her twin brother, Harry, were born. When you see and feel how she speaks, since she’s a toddler, her agency of self is undeniable. As a filmmaker that’s your challenge: how do we show this? She curls her hair behind her ear and there are five moments at different ages when she does that, so it’s this, yes, Moffatt-esque flutter of images and repetition that share meaning beyond just Georgie fighting political battles. 

Unfortunately the history of documentary is that we don’t give creative control to people whose lives are being depicted: it’s the artist’s interpretation of their life. That can cause harm. Georgie’s title is “creative producer” because she was there for all of the conversations about what the film would be, at all stages of the filmmaking. It’s the intentionality that makes it about sharing power. It means that through the process and the making there’s a story, as well as what’s on screen. 

It introduces a politics, wobbling the colonial gaze that just objectifies, just snatches. 

In the art world we’re well into understanding that the person who wields the camera is creating meaning. In Moffatt’s work Heaven there was a female gaze watching men undress, and that’s kind of uncomfortable and creepy, but it’s also incredibly rebellious and funny and powerful to be a woman watching that film. 

All of us have to give space for our imaginations and the dreams and fantasies and memories that live within us, because they’re just as important to allow our audiences to connect and see ourselves in a person like Georgie. I think Moffatt really knew that as well. 

She also tilts to the dark...

The dark side is really there in her work; it’s mysterious. The other work that particularly hit home is her Scarred for Life photographic series. Why did I love that so much? I think it’s because each image in that series is almost like the beginning of a film. They’re incredibly cinematic: it’s one shot and a tiny piece of writing – like the sisters who are punished by cutting the lawn with a pair of scissors, and you know there are 10 million narratives that could sit around that one picture, but it’s so unresolved that you’re thinking about it for months after. They’re cinematic but also take that perspective of a child, where being a child intersects with the larger adult world. That’s been a fascination of a lot of my work: how children exist in an adult world and navigate the politics of society. 

I think for all artists there’s a push up against conflict. You have to have that darkness when you’re saying something about the world. I see that as the purpose of art, to open our eyes and allow us to see things from a different perspective, or undress truths that you couldn’t see without that story. 

It wasn’t intentional but Dreamlife is like the third part of a trilogy of films I’ve made shot from children’s perspectives. What I love about Scarred for Life is that it’s something we all have in common. Everyone has been a child, everyone has had that beautiful naivety, and at some point everyone’s had that moment when the real world comes crashing in: those realisations that imprint our identity or constrict our freedom. 

Some children grow up into artists! A form of resistance surely. 

At the heart of Moffatt’s work there’s this heart of rebelliousness, this playful resistance, which I love. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to navigate that in my own work, and I deeply believe that that’s the purpose, to push up against the norms of society and show a different way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Maya Newell".

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