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Caught between two cultures in Australia

Dujuan, an Aboriginal boy,  in class in the documentary "In My Blood It Runs."
Dujuan, an Aboriginal boy, in class in the documentary "In My Blood It Runs."Maya Newell

A scene in Maya Newell’s “In My Blood It Runs” shows Dujuan, a 10-year-old Aboriginal boy, attending a class on Australian history. The teacher reads from a picture book glorifying the explorer James Cook as he lands at Botany Bay in 1770 and claims the continent for the British Empire. “It’s not a story,” she says. “It’s a fact. It’s the history of our country.”

No mention is made of the people who already lived there and who after being “discovered” would be subjected to genocidal extermination and relocation. As the film points out in archival clips, that policy continued into the 20th century when Dujuan’s grandparents’ generation was growing up. It was a time when children were separated from parents and placed in schools that would — as a clip from a newsreel from the period puts it — “free [them] from the bounds of tribal compulsion.”

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The schools don’t seem to have improved much since then. Most of the teachers have little respect for indigenous people or interest in their culture — in another class a teacher reads from a book describing Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and expresses non-comprehension and disdain. So Dujuan looks forward to his periodical returns to his Arrernte tribe’s Sandy Bore Homeland, where he can connect with nature, learn more of the Arrernte language, and immerse himself in those “bounds of tribal compulsion” — the rites, lore, and beliefs his people have held for thousands of years. He’d like to live there permanently, but his mother insists he stay in the town of Alice Springs and attend a government-run school where he can gain enough knowledge of the ways of those in power to negotiate the system while still retaining his identity.

He doesn’t see much hope in that. In a scene at the beginning of the film he and some friends stand on a ridge overlooking a golf course and fancy houses. They remark that this is where the rich people live, a neighborhood where they will never be welcome. What especially galls Dujuan is that his esteemed role as tribal healer, a power passed down for generations which he inherited from his grandfather, is dismissed by whites as backward superstition.

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So Dujuan rebels and refuses to rein in his mystical nature and his aversion to the rote, soul-deadening lessons of spiritually benighted people. He fails his classes, teachers complain about his fractiousness and intransigence, and he wanders away from home at night and gets into trouble. The child services and welfare people warn his mother that if he doesn’t amend his ways they will cut off her benefits and possibly send him to reform school. What the latter might entail is seen in a leaked video shown on the news of an indigenous boy in a cell stripped and beaten by guards. But Dujuan, it seems, can’t or won’t change.

Newell spent three years with Dujuan and his extended family of aunts, uncles, and elders, earning their trust and even giving Dujuan a camera to record his experiences. She joins him as he chafes under the constraints of Alice Springs and as he finds liberation and focus in his homeland. By the end he seems to resign himself to balancing a longing for his Aboriginal culture with the need to learn about how the system in power works — and then subvert it. “The only way we are going to get white people off our land is to listen to them,” he says near the end. “Learn how to use their stuff and use their tools to smash [them].”

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“In My Blood It Runs” can be streamed at the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room beginning on June 19.

Go to www.brattlefilm.org/virtual-programs/in-my-blood-it-runs.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.