Gayby Baby is an Australian documentary that follows the lives of four children raised by same-sex parents. Directed by up and coming filmmaker Maya Newell and made in collaboration with producer Charlotte Mars, Gayby Baby premiered at Hot Docs, Toronto in 2015, and its young stars have continued to charm people around the world with their story. For four years Maya filmed in the homes of kids being raised by gay and lesbian parents, and as Maya explains, it’s a subject close to her heart.
Rialto: You yourself are a child of same-sex parents - was this the motivation behind making Gayby Baby?
MN: We all need stories that reflect our lives, but when I was growing up, I didn’t see my family structure on billboards, in magazines, at the movies or on TV. There exists a silence around LGBT families and this was reiterated as the Marriage Equality debate in Australia began to rise in volume about 6 years ago. Politicians seemed to be talking about me, and kids like me as if we were hypothetical. They’d repeat the argument that children would be the collateral damage ‘if’ we allowed gays to marry.
Firstly, marriage is not a prerequisite for children (my mothers wouldn’t get married if you payed them) and actually ‘gaybies’ have existed for generations already. I am 28 (22 at the time the producer Charlotte Mars and I began making Gayby Baby) and my mothers have been together for over 30 years. Our voice appeared to be missing from the debate.
Charlotte and I were fresh out of university and it felt like the right time to stand up and say something… The last decade has seen an incredible shift in the queer community as for the first time in history, due to the lifting of discriminatory legislation, developments in reproductive technology and the greater queer acceptance, LGBTIQ+ people can realistically expect to have a family. Now, there are hundreds of thousands of gaybies growing up and spreading their wings. We are in a ‘Gayby Boom’ and Charlotte and I wanted to make a film that represented the voice of this new generation of kids.
We are proud to say that Gayby Baby is the first feature documentary that tells the story of same-sex families, from the perspective of the kids.
Rialto: What a wonderful way to explore the issue of same-sex parents by observing those who matter the most - the kids. Was this a story you always envisioned telling without domineering politicians and ‘expert’ talking heads debating the issue?
MN: The vision for Gayby Baby was always to make an intimate observational style documentary and retreat from the conventional ‘talking head’ style. Besides, experts, psychologists, researchers and politicians have been talking about us and for us for a long time without listening to our opinions. Gayby Baby is a film that offers you a window into the lives of four incredible children – Matt, Ebony, Gus and Graham – as they traverse the usual challenges of growing up, amidst a world that is debating their wellbeing due to their parents sexuality.
Gayby Baby is a film that is not about fighting for LGBT rights, or proving a point, it offers a soft entry for people who have genuine concern for children with same-sex parents because they have never met any. It is a gentle invitation and says ‘come and spend a year with these unique children and see what you think’. It aims to replace the usual polemics surrounding our families by disarming audiences with personal stories.
Perhaps it is Chris Graham from New Matilda who best captures the spirit of the film:
“GAYBY BABY manages to be possibly the most endearing and entertaining hour and a half of mundane Australian family life ever put to film. It’s frequently hilarious. And if the audience reaction is anything go by, it’s also extremely uplifting…
GAYBY BABY corners the bigotry directed at same-sex couples, and leaves it with absolutely nowhere to go. The argument that opponents to same-sex marriage have clung to with increasing desperation – ‘who will think of the children, won’t somebody please think of the children!’ – evaporates in the face of a film that reveals it’s the children doing the thinking for themselves.”
Rialto: I believe the documentary caused quite a stir in Australia. Did that surprise you, and how did you handle it?
MN: Yes it did!
The story begins when we were selected to participate in Good Pitch Australia 2014. This is a new highly competitive event that allows documentary filmmakers to build coalitions of partners across philanthropy, community organisations, corporate Australia etc… and use documentary storytelling for social change. Here, we gained the resources and partnerships to construct a campaign to put the experiences of children in same-sex families front and centre to the Marriage Equality debate and build acceptance for queer family structures in Australian education system.
As the Gayby Baby is about kids, we thought we would offer preview screenings of the film to Australia’s youth first at a national youth-led initiative called Wear It Purple Day, a week prior to the cinema release…
Then, a few days before the 80 screenings were to take place in school halls across the country, one of Australia’s major newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, ran a cover story citing a 'Gay Class Uproar’; commentators were outraged schools would show a film that 'promoted a homosexual lifestyle’. Government ministers responded by preventing screenings across the entire state during school hours, media went into overdrive, it was trending on Twitter, a big protest was held and a State vs. State battle erupted, as another State Premier declared the film welcome in his state’s schools...
While the support for the film was truly incredible, we were shocked at how even the idea of same-sex families could cause such vicious debate amongst people who had not seen the film.
While there were a few weeks where our film landed in the crossfire, what was incredible was the utter groundswell of support that followed. What may in fact be the true litmus test – we were trending on Twitter for two full days.
How did we handle it? We are incredibly proud of the teenage stars of the film, who stood strong that week and actually were the ones that offered Charlotte and I the courage to take on the media and continue to send positive messages out into the community.
Rialto: One thing that struck me about this film is how the kids remind us that families are made up of people - all different kids of people - not sexuality, and all people deserve equality and respect. That’s a powerful message, and one I imagine partly crafted in the editing suite. How easy was the editing process?
MN: We spent about a year editing and completing post-production on Gayby Baby. The editor, Roschelle Oshlack wove a beautiful narrative from the 150 hours or so of rushes. Also, I’d like to mention the crucial input of the executive producer, Billy Marshall Stoneking who always asked the hard questions and whose understanding of story and character brought this film to life. This core team, Charlotte, Rochelle and Billy were all necessarily honest and able to be utterly brutal in the edit room, never pandering to any individuals’ creative ego but putting the story first.
Rialto: The film itself isn’t political and yet there are some very hot political issues in the background – same-sex marriage for example. How are you Aussies going on that?
MN: While over 70% of Australians support marriage equality, we have some very conservative voices at the top of our power system that will not budge. We have just confirmed that the result of last week's election is that we have a conservative, right wing Turnbull Government once more. This means that it is likely that we will be having a plebiscite on Marriage Equality before the end of the year. For LGBTIQ+ people and families, this is terrible news. It means we will have a government-endorsed hate campaign that will most likely use children and families as political footballs in an attempt block progress. It will be a step backwards and will be utterly devastating for the thousands of LGBT people, in particular LGBT youth and children growing up with same-sex attracted parents. I want to move to New Zealand!
We didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and watch… so over the past year, we have formed ‘The Gayby Project’ which is the social outreach arm of Gayby Baby. With support garnered from Good Pitch Australia (mentioned above), we have spent the last year screening the film to politicians, public figures and leaders and have hosted screenings of the film in Federal and State Parliament house/s all around the country.
Over 250 MPs, Senators and their staffers have seen the film and made personal and moving speeches on parliament house floors, following the screening and panel event in Federal Parliament House, one MP, Adam Giles beautifully articulates the impact of the film on him.
“It is one thing for someone to support a matter of principle, another to directly understand how such a principle directly impacts on people's lives. These people told powerful stories about the need to have equality in marriage and equality more broadly, about the need to recognise that what unites happy families is love, not the form of the family. I would like to send a message to them and all other children of same-sex families that I will stand up in this place and in my community for them to be treated with respect and equally.”
Rialto: This is your debut feature film - typically a massive learning experience. What are a few of the most important things you learnt throughout making Gayby Baby?
- Always trust your instinct and do not sway in the face of older, white men questioning you because you are young, naïveand female.
- Work with good-hearted people you admire.
- Put the needs of your documentary subjects first.
- Take risks and have the courage to do things differently . "What you risk, reveals what you value" – Jeanette Winterson)
Rialto: The kids are the stars of this film - can you tell us briefly how they’re all doing now?
MN: Gus – is 15 and while, to our dismay, he sold his wrestler figurines on eBay. He just got his first job as an Akido (Martial Arts) instructor!
Ebony – is 17 and is studying to be a journalist or book publisher. She is in the gifted and talented stream at Northmead High. She still loves singing… She has a new baby brother ‘Makaya’ who just turned 1 and I am his godparent!
Matt – is 17 and saving for a big trip around Europe when he finishes school. He is still obsessed with AFL footy and still doesn’t go to church.
Graham – is 15 and still lives in Fiji. He is very tall and read me a whole chapter of his book on Skype the other day!
Rialto: Congratulations on the success of the film, what’s next?
MN: Charlotte and I are both in the midst of writing and creating new films! We are both very excited about the prospect of new stories into the future.
Gayby Baby premieres on Rialto Channel on Thursday 4th August at 8.30pm